Marine protection and fishing

Bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) - an explainer

Bottom fishing activities are the fishing operations that have the worst impacts on the seabed. They harm fish populations, climate, and marine biodiversity. Despite that, in Europe bottom trawling is still allowed in marine protected areas (MPAs) - areas that have the purpose of preserving flora and fauna of our seas. Find answers to frequently asked questions on bottom trawling here.

What is bottom trawling?

Bottom trawling is a method of fishing that involves dragging heavy weighted nets across the sea floor in an effort to catch fish that inhabits that area. It is a popular fishing practice, widely used by commercial fishing companies. For big fishing companies, bottom trawling is profitable, as it can catch large quantities of seafood in one go.

Why is bottom trawling seen in a negative light?

There is a scientific consensus that clearly shows the negative impact of bottom trawling. It not only contributes to biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, but it also has a broader environmental impact which makes it harder for us to mitigate climate change.

How does bottom trawling contribute to biodiversity loss?

Dragging big heavy nets across the sea floor is effective if you want to catch a lot of fish, but it also means that it is harder to target the fish species you want to catch - it is likely that fish species you did not mean to catch will also get in the way of these huge nets and will be caught. The practice of accidentally catching fish you did not mean to catch is called ‘bycatch’, and it is especially a problem with methods like bottom trawling. Sometimes bycatch also includes vulnerable species whose populations are already depleted and may never recover. A recent study shows that bottom trawling can catch up to 41% of all invertebrate life from the sea floor. In addition, dragging big nets across the sea floor damages valuable marine habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. This scale of biodiversity loss and habitat damage disturbs the delicate balance in marine ecosystems and has broader consequences on marine life as a whole.

How is bottom trawling connected to climate change?

It might not be visible, but the ocean plays a key role in mitigating climate change. The ocean acts as a ‘carbon sink’, absorbing some of the carbon that is released into the atmosphere. The oceans’ ability to absorb carbon means that we have been avoiding the worst of climate change consequences. But because of the sheer scale of carbon emissions in the last few decades, it is becoming harder for the oceans to absorb so much carbon. Bottom trawling disturbs the marine sediments and habitats that act as the world’s largest carbon stores, re-releasing carbon into the water column. Experts warned that globally, disturbance of previously undisturbed marine sediment carbon through trawling was estimated to release the equivalent of 15 to 20% of atmospheric CO2 absorbed annually by the ocean.

If bottom trawling is so damaging, we can improve the situation by designating marine protected areas, right?

Indeed, you would think that it would be obvious that a marine protected area (MPA) is not compatible with a fishing practice that has so many negative consequences on marine ecosystems. But marine protected areas often exist only as ‘paper parks’ in Europe. While 12.4% of the seas were designated for protection in 2019, only 1.8% of those areas had actual means of being protected - by an existing and effective management plan. A recent study has shown that bottom trawling is taking place in 59% of EU marine protected areas. Another study showed that in 2020, more than 2.5 million hours of bottom trawling took place in Europe’s protected areas. And yet another study showed that in more than two thirds of Northern Europe MPAs, trawling was 1.4 times more intense inside the so-called ‘protected’ areas than outside.

What is the European Parliament going to do about that?

This week, the European Parliament adopted a report on the sustainable blue economy. The so-called ‘blue’ economy refers to all economic activities in the oceans. The blue economy is growing, which is why it is especially important that it is managed sustainably. This report was first adopted by the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries, and it included a call for a ban of bottom trawling in marine protected areas. This is the first time that the Committee on Fisheries, which usually leans conservative in terms of environmental protection, has adopted such ambitious language. However, when the report was voted by the entire European Parliament plenary this week, Renew Europe tabled an amendment that dilutes that, and only calls for a ban of bottom trawling in strictly protected areas, which amounts to a very small percentage of MPAs. This amendment was unfortunately adopted, which means that the report is less ambitious than we had hoped for. However, our Group, Greens/EFA tabled amendments that were adopted by the plenary and that will strengthen the ambition of the report. Our amendments outline the negative impact of destructive fishing techniques, call for more research to enable protection of marine carbon sinks, and urge the European Commission and Member States to be more decisive in prohibiting harmful fishing practices in MPAs.

What is going to happen now that the report has been adopted?

Although this report is not legally binding, it sends an important political signal to the European Commission for future legislation and other initiatives. This is timely now, as the European Commission is planning to publish an Action Plan on protecting fisheries resources and marine biodiversity, which should include detailed roadmap and precise measures on bottom-trawling. But as soon as the European Commission announced their intentions to tackle bottom trawling, the big fisheries lobbyists responded by putting pressure on the Commission. Just last month, the lobbyists launched a European bottom fishing alliance that argues against scientific evidence and claims that bottom trawling is sustainable and not damaging to the environment.

What can I do as a citizen then?

You are not powerless, even though it seems like lobbyists have a big influence on decision-makers. Even though the European Parliament has not explicitly called for a ban on bottom trawling in MPAs, this report is a step in the right direction. Although political change can sometimes be frustratingly slow, there is a shift in the public opinion, more awareness on how much we need healthy oceans, and how much we need to stop chasing profit at the expense of our environment. Public opinion plays a more crucial role than you might imagine. More than 150,000 Europeans called on the EU to ban bottom-trawling in all marine protected areas.

And there is another petition that over 20 000 people have already signed, and you can sign too (and share it with your friends).

Your voice matters.

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