Allowing bottom trawlers to fish in protected areas like 'bulldozing through a nature reserve'

ITV News Correspondent Rupert Evelyn reports on fishing in protected waters

Travelling on a flat calm sea into the middle of the English Channel, those on board this Greenpeace vessel knew that catching fishing activity inside a Marine Protected Area (MPA) was highly likely.

Such benign conditions are perfect for trawling.

The Sea Beaver is spending the summer patrolling British waters looking for fishing in MPAs.

These areas, it’s argued, are protected in name only.

Law does not prevent trawlers from dragging their nets along the bottom but in doing so, campaigners ask how it is compatible with environmental protection?

Two hours out of Newhaven, the satellite data pointed us towards a French trawler with its net inside the Bassurelle Sandbank on the English side of the border with France.

A small Greenpeace boat motors up to the trawler to try and get the attention of the captain. Credit: ITV News

On this day it was French, but observers routinely see fishing activity inside MPAs from a multitude of states, including Britain.

Greenpeace staff attempted to speak with the trawler skipper and explain that he was in an MPA, but he refused to engage.

So, with a smaller boat, they moved in.

The aim is to educate, but also deter.

Greenpeace tried to speak to the captain of the trawler but they would not engage. Credit: ITV News

The trawler hauled its bulging net on aboard while Green Party MP Caroline Lucas held a banner aloft declaring: 'This is a Marine Protected Area'.

As the net cleared the water, the trawler put on the power and headed straight out of the area.

Despite almost 40% of British waters having protected status, it’s thought that fishers often don’t realise they are in them.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas holds up a sign stating the area is an MPA. Credit: ITV News

Greenpeace Oceans campaigner, Chris Thorne, said: “We have a network of offshore marine protected areas, but they offer protection in name only.

"They are just lines on the map and they don't have any kind of restrictions on disruptive activity.

"It's almost a free for all within them."

He says their research reveals trawlers are spending tens of thousands of hours operating in MPAs, adding: "We think the government should ban these methods of fishing for marine protected areas without delay.

"Since Brexit, they have the powers to do that.

"They've proven that they're able to use these powers, so now we just want to see the government use these powers for good and restrict this type of fishing in Marine Protected Areas.

"That will be a massive step towards fully protecting 30% of our waters by 2030, which is one of the government's own goals."

Trawlers spend tens of thousands of hours operating in MPAs, says Greenpeace Oceans campaigner Chris Thorne

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, who had also joined the patrol, told ITV News: “If you ask [most people] what do you expect to see in a Marine Protected Area, I would assume that you wouldn't be seeing some of the most damaging industrial fishing on the planet. And yet, that's what we're seeing.

"I don't think we need further consultation.

"What I think we need is a sense of urgency and commitment.”

Drawing comparisons with protected areas onshore, she added: "It's been put to me that if the kind of destruction that is happening at sea were happening on land, if you had a bulldozer bulldozing through a nature reserve, people would be up in arms.

"The trouble is people can't see what's happening out here. They don't have the privilege that I've had to come out today and see it for myself. I think if they did see it, the pressure on government to act far more, far more quickly, would be would be an awful lot higher."

Allowing trawlers to operate in MPAs is like "bulldozing through a nature reserve", says Green Party MP Caroline Lucas

The government says it is committed to assessing the status and protection levels of MPAs.

The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) - which is responsible for managing MPAs in England - said: “Over the next three years, the MMO will be undertaking a programme of work to manage impacts from fishing activities in more than 40 offshore MPAs.

"It is important that we continue to monitor activity in all MPAs, to ensure their features remain protected and to enable fishing to continue where possible.”

This 'programme of work' has drawn stinging criticism from one the key organisations representing fishers.

Dale Rodmell, Assistant Chief Executive at the National Federation of Fisherman's Organisations, said: “A mature, steady approach in which we have invested huge amounts of time and effort has been left behind.

"We are now into the realm of gesture politics and vanity projects.

"The focus is site-by-site and no one is looking at the cumulative effects and damage to the fishing industry through displacement.”

The NFFO fear their members are being driven out of their traditional fisheries by "a cohort of environmental zealots within the top echelons of the Conservative Party and close to the prime minister".

Many of those who campaign for greater protection of MPAs are supporters of sustainable fishing. Finding a balance to appease all sides is, as ever, the catch.

What makes the Bassurelle Sandbank a Marine Protected Area?

There are 372 Marine Protected Areas in the UK, covering nearly two fifths of our waters.

They are areas where environmentally-damaging activities - such as certain types of fishing - are restricted.

ITV News filmed around Bassurelle Sandbank, which is in the Dover Strait and covers more than 6,700 hectares. It straddles the boundary between UK and French waters.

It was declared a 'site of community importance' in 2011 and a 'special area of conservation' in 2017.

It's described by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) as a "nursery area for lemon sole, mackerel and sand eel, and a spawning area for cod, lemon sole, sole, plaice, sand eel and sprat".

Although not illegal to fish there, the protected feature of Bassurelle Sandbank is considered to be sensitive to the pressures associated with fishing.

A Defra spokesperson said: “The UK is a global leader in the protection of our seas, with our ‘Blue Belt’ of Marine Protected Areas extending across 40 per cent of English waters and plans to pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas to boost biodiversity recovery.

“We are committed to achieving a healthy and sustainable marine environment, and 98 sites in our inshore waters now have management measures in place to protect habitats from bottom towed fishing gears.”