Proposals to ban damaging fishing in Dogger Bank could be a first step to the recovery of a rich array of wildlife, conservationists have said.
Under the plans put out for consultation by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), bottom trawling would be prohibited in four English offshore marine protected areas, including Dogger Bank off the North East coast.
Dogger Bank is a large sandbank of shallow area in the North Sea. Before the ice age, the landmass used to connect Europe and the British Isles. In recent times the area has become synonymous with fishing.
Campaigners said the move to properly protect the conservation areas would help preserve important habitats such as sandbanks, coral gardens and reefs and the wildlife they support, and boost fish stocks.
Failing to prevent harmful activity such as bottom trawling - in which weighted nets are dragged over the seabed, ploughing it up to catch fish - in protected areas such as Dogger Bank is in breach of legal obligations.
Last year, Greenpeace took matters into its own hands to stop bottom trawling in Dogger Bank, which is designated to protect its seabed habitat, by dropping boulders into the sea to create a barrier to fishing gear.
Launching the consultation, Environment Secretary George Eustice said that now the UK had left the EU-wide Common Fisheries Policy, "we are able to deliver on our commitment to achieve a healthy, thriving and sustainable marine environment".
The UK has already established an impressive 'blue belt' covering 38% of our waters and our Fisheries Act has provided us with additional powers to go further to protect our seas around England. This proposal to introduce bye-laws to safeguard four of our precious offshore marine protected areas shows how we are putting these powers into action
Chris Thorne, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said ministers had finally woken up to their responsibilities.
"Yet there are still hundreds of other equally important marine areas still open to all forms of destructive industrial fishing.
"Action in these four sites is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scale needed to solve the crisis facing our oceans," he said.
Sandy Luk, chief executive of the Marine Conservation Society, said action rather than consultation was needed.
"By banning bottom towed fishing gear in these areas carbon emissions will be reduced, the habitats themselves will be able to recover and fishers will see a slow but steady increase in fish stocks in these areas.
"Rather than a consultation this should be the first step in phasing out bottom towed fishing gear in marine protected areas meant to safeguard our fragile seabed habitats," she said.
Charles Clover, executive director of conservation charity Blue Marine Foundation, which mounted a legal challenge to illegal fishing on the Dogger Bank, welcomed the "first step" towards protecting offshore marine protected areas.
He said the Dogger Bank was "a huge and ecologically important area which has been hammered by trawls and dredges for too long"