Total ban on sandeel fishing and partial ban on bottom trawling announced in the UK

The UK government's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs today announced a partial ban on bottom trawling in some marine protected areas and a total ban on fishing for sandeels in the English North Sea, helping to boost nature recovery on land and at sea. 

Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Glen Hooper & Ellen Cuylaerts

Puffins, porpoises, and pine martens are some of the species set to benefit from new measures set out by the UK government today, 31 January, to boost nature recovery on land and at sea. The new plans – announced one year on from the launch of the Environmental Improvement Plan – will see a permanent closure of the sandeel fisheries in English waters of the North Sea from April, further targeted restrictions on damaging bottom trawling and a new framework for national parks and protected areas to help them better deliver for nature.

Sandeels are a vital food source for some of our most vulnerable seabirds and marine mammals, such as the iconic puffin and harbour porpoise, and commercially important fish species such as haddock and whiting. This closure will bolster the resilience of these species and make space for nature to recover across our marine habitats.

Important pink sea fans, fragile sponges, anemones will also be further boosted with a targeted ban announced on bottom trawling in an additional 13 Marine Protected Areas to safeguard over 4,000km2 of seabed – in total, an area equivalent to the size of Essex. Today’s announcement increases the total area of English seabed protected from bottom trawling to 12% in areas off the south coast of the Isle of Wight, west of Land’s End and east of Lowestoft.

Much of the carbon stored in the UK’s seafloor (93%) is found in the muddy and sandy sediments in offshore waters. When the seabed is trawled, stored carbon is released into the water column, negatively impacting water chemistry and ocean productivity. When left undisturbed, these habitats store carbon, and recover to provide vital habitats for young fish and many other sea creatures.

Gareth Cunningham, Director of Conservation and Policy at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “You would assume that designating an area as a ‘Marine Protected Area’ would protect the site from damaging activities. Regrettably, this has not been the reality for many sites, with effective management measures often slowly implemented. Today’s announcements are crucial in properly protecting our seas.”

To bring us closer to achieving the global goal to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, a new framework for National Parks and National Landscapes to help them better deliver for nature and access will also be published. This builds on the commitments the government set out at COP28, including a map which demonstrates which areas of land could contribute to the 30by30 target in England.

In response to the news, Oceana UK’s executive director, Hugo Tagholm, said: “The new ban on industrial fishing for sandeels is unequivocally the right decision and should be applauded. Sandeels are tiny fish – but their impact is vast. As the mainstay of many marine food webs, protecting these fish helps protect our awe-inspiring ocean wildlife. Up to half the diet of whales such as humpback and minke is made up of sandeels, for instance.”

“The next steps are to extend this ban beyond the North Sea to throughout UK waters, working in partnership with the devolved administrations. Secondly, we must not forget other small fish that are also vital food for ocean life. Sprat, for example, are important for harbour porpoises and grey seals, yet catches have persistently exceeded the scientific advice – the government needs to act to protect them too. Our marine life is already facing multiple severe threats: from industrial fishing to the climate crisis, diseases like avian flu and pollution of many kinds. Protecting these fish and habitats is a vital part of building the resilience of our seas,” he added.

In response to the partial bottom trawling ban, he said that the new ban “on bottom trawling on reef and rock habitats in 13 marine protected areas is a welcome step forward in the race to properly protect 30% of our seas by 2030”. He added: “This highly destructive practice bulldozes marine habitats, and can destroy them in minutes, often never to recover. But the fact that this ban is only for reef and rock habitats and only in 13 MPAs still leaves vast swathes of our so-called ‘protected’ areas open to this extremely harmful practice.”

Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB, said: “Answering the RSPB’s call to end industrial Sandeel fishing, today’s announcement is a vital lifeline from our Government for our seabirds when they need it most. The UK is home to globally important seabird colonies, but these populations are at the forefront of the nature and climate emergency and are in significant decline, with their resilience being pushed to the limit.”

The government has also announced the recipients of £7 million of awards to improve lowland peat soils. Peatlands are the UK’s largest terrestrial carbon store. However, as a result of centuries of drainage for agriculture, just 1% of England’s lowland peatlands remain in a near-natural state, and these drained peatlands account for 88% of all greenhouse gas emissions from England’s peat.

The 34 projects, spread across England’s lowland peat regions such as the Cambridgeshire Fens and Somerset Levels, will use government funding to improve the management of water on lowland peat and enhance understanding of climate change impacts and flood risk. They include projects that will use innovative technologies, such as telemetry, to precisely control water retention levels across the landscape.

Steve Barclay, Environment Secretary, commented: “We’ve made a lot of progress since we launched the Environmental Improvement Plan – we’ve planted nearly 5 million trees, improved public access to our beautiful countryside and accelerated the adoption of our world-leading farming schemes. We are building on this progress with a new package to safeguard our marine ecosystems and bring us one step closer to achieving our 30by30 target, both on land and sea.”

In June 2022, the UK Government already closed four large offshore sites to bottom trawls, including over 12,300km2 of seabed at Dogger Bank MPA. Since the byelaw came into place, the Marine Conservation Society identified a 98% drop in fishing activity, showing how impactful these byelaws are. The UK government has further set a target to fully protect all English offshore MPAs designated for their seabed features – a further 28 offshore sites – by the end of 2024.  

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here


Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Glen Hooper & Ellen Cuylaerts

Current issue

Back issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.