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UK Governments must seize opportunity to make fisheries truly sustainable

Sarah Denman from Client Earth calls on UK Governments to make UK Fisheries truly sustainable through the UK Marine Strategy and a strong Fisheries Bill.

June 2019

Almost half of all fish stocks in the UK are fished at unsustainable levels, according to the government’s recently published revised Marine Strategy. This is a serious concern as both European and international law commit the UK to end overfishing by 2020 and this statistic shows that the government is way off that target.

The government’s revised strategy presents a chance to chart a new course to reverse the decline in fish stocks and save our ocean. The government must seize this opportunity and set and achieve strong targets in law to stop our marine life being irreparably damaged.

Whilst plastic pollution has captured headlines, a recent UN report on biodiversity points to overfishing as the biggest danger to marine species and habitats. Yet the government has a range of tools at its disposal to address this issue and despite its inherent risks, Brexit makes it possible to shape new, ambitious laws that use these tools to ensure the UK is a world-leader in the fight to save our precious ocean.

The revised Strategy champions the Fisheries Bill, which will regulate UK fisheries post-Brexit, as the way to deliver sustainable fishing. However, as currently drafted, it falls well short of this ambition.

The bill replaces the existing legal obligation and the 2020 deadline to set fishing limits sustainably with simply a high-level, aspirational objective to achieve sustainable fishing in the long term. This represents a weakening in environmental standards from the stronger ambition set out in the government’s white paper and the UK’s existing EU and international commitments.

To deliver on sustainable fishing, new law and policy must commit the government to set fishing limits in line with scientifically recommended levels by 2020.

Another key failure of UK fisheries policy is around effective data collection and monitoring of catches. The revised strategy highlights that for many stocks, there is simply not enough data to determine how healthy populations are.

To ensure stocks are being harvested sustainably and to minimise negative impacts of fisheries on the wider marine environment, fisheries must operate in a fully transparent and accountable manner with catches accurately recorded.

Looking beyond domestic policy, the government must also set clear sustainability criteria in relation to negotiations with other countries. This is particularly important in the context of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

The UK shares more than 100 stocks with the EU, which means it is critical that a clear and robust process is developed to help avoid another ‘mackerel wars’ scenario.

In approaching these negotiations, the UK must be required to adhere to scientific advice and take all reasonable steps to avoid agreements, or lack thereof, that result in overfishing.

Both the Marine Strategy and the fisheries bill present an opportunity for the government to address these issues before it’s too late. In light of the UN report and the recent declaration of the climate and ecological emergency, the issue of overfishing and what we can do to reverse it has never been more pressing.

Whatever happens in the upcoming Conservative party leadership battle, and whichever direction Brexit takes us in, the government must seize this opportunity to shape new policies that really make a difference to our planet’s most precious life support system, the ocean.

Sarah Denman, UK Environment Lawyer, Client Earth.


The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.