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Climate-smart fisheries

UK governments must future-proof fisheries with ‘climate-smart’ action, say WWF, Marine Conservation Society and RSPB
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Climate-smart fisheries

The UK can future-proof its fisheries – and show world leadership in the process – by adopting a ‘climate-smart’ strategy for the sector, according to a new report from WWF, Marine Conservation Society and RSPB.

In the wake of the IPCC report, and ahead of the COP26 climate summit, the conservation organisations are calling on UK governments to make good on the commitment made in the Fisheries Act, and put UK fisheries on a sustainable footing by adopting a ‘climate-smart’ strategy.

A modern approach

The strategy would reduce the carbon emissions that come directly from the UK fishing fleet and
enhance marine biodiversity by reducing (and where possible reversing) the damage from unsustainable fishing practices.

It would also increase the potential for UK seas to act as a carbon sink by helping protect blue carbon habitats.

‘Much like we seek to modernise the UK’s energy sector, we need a modern approach to how we source our seafood. Not just to address the dual climate and nature crises, but to ensure that sustainable seafood is an integral part of the UK food system.   
‘Change is never easy. But we cannot build a sustainable, healthy seafood sector whilst damaging the marine environment. Realising the benefits of climate-smart fishing is vital to restoring our marine environment, providing a healthy source of protein and a future for the industry that supplies it.’

Head of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society

Fisheries and the climate crisis

Right now, far from harnessing the power of UK seas to act as a climate hero, Shifting gears – achieving climate-smart fisheries shows the extent to which the sector is adding to the climate and nature crises.

The report also recognises the need for increased research to help fill knowledge gaps as part of a new climate-smart approach.  

According to the report, over 50% of the UK fishing fleet vessels are around 30 years old, and the vast majority are powered by fossil fuels.

Based on UK fishing vessel activity data, UK fisheries are estimated to have emitted 914.4. kilotons of CO2 over a one-year period – equivalent to the emissions created by the annual energy use of over 110,000 homes.  

Destroying habitats

Fisheries can also damage the ocean’s capacity to act as a carbon sink, due to the use of bottom-towed gear that destroys carbon-rich habitats like seagrass meadows and muddy sediments.

Fishing beyond sustainable levels removes too much biomass from the ocean, further undermining its potential as a carbon sink.

The first post-Brexit UK fish stock audit published at the start of 2021 showed that only three of the UK’s top 10 fish populations are fished at or below maximum sustainable yield.

‘The nature and climate emergency is threatening life above and below the waves right here in the UK. Every industry must now play a part in driving the rapid decarbonisation and restoration of nature needed to avoid climate breakdown. 

‘This report offers a roadmap for fisheries managers to meet climate targets while safeguarding our seas for future generations. Ahead of crucial climate and nature COPs and with a Joint Fisheries Statement by all four governments of the UK due, now is the crucial moment to commit to and deliver an ambitious ‘climate-smart’ strategy to future proof our fisheries and revive our world.’

RSPB’s head of marine policy

AS ‘gold standard’ in fisheries

Despite these impacts, the report shows that fisheries are all-too-often overlooked by governments in strategies to address the climate and nature crises.

It concludes that, by adopting a ‘climate-smart’ fisheries strategy, UK governments could help to accelerate progress to net zero and make the UK fishing industry leaders in the field.

The UK already has world-leading legislation in place to deliver this – in the form of the UK Fisheries Act, 2020 – which sets out a clear objective to address the climate impact of fisheries. A ‘climate-smart’ approach is a blueprint to deliver on that target.   

‘The ocean is the blue heart of our planet and, when it comes to tackling the climate and nature crises, we ignore it at our peril.  
‘As an independent coastal state, the UK has the chance to set a gold standard in fisheries management by delivering on the world-leading climate commitments set out in the UK Fisheries Act 2020 – ministers must make good on that promise. 
‘Adopting a climate-smart strategy is the way to do this, future-proofing the sector while showcasing the UK’s commitment to slashing its global environmental footprint ahead of COP26. We won’t forget the UK governments’ climate promises and, together with our supporters, we will hold governments to account for delivering on them.’

Fisheries programme lead at WWF

The report further explores how low emissions fishing ventures could deliver economic benefits, boosting tourism and bolstering the UK’s reputation for truly sustainable seafood.

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