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Nature recovery plans

Campaigners respond to government's new measures to protect land and sea
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
A pair of puffins against the green coastal backdrop of Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Puffins, porpoises and pine martens are just some of the species set to benefit from new measures set out by the government today (31 January) to boost nature recovery on land and at sea.
The new plans – announced one year on from the launch of the Environmental Improvement Plan – will see a permanent closure of the sand eel fisheries in English waters of the North Sea from April.

Important pink sea fans, fragile sponges, anemones will also be further boosted with a targeted ban announced on bottom trawling in an additional 13 Marine Protected Areas.

A new framework for national parks and protected areas to help them better deliver for nature.

Bottom trawling in MPAs

Hugo Tagholm, executive director of Oceana UK, said Defra’s new ban on the ‘highly destructive practice’ of bottom trawling on reef and rock habitats in 13 marine protected areas ‘is a welcome step forward in the race to properly protect 30% of our seas by 2030’.
But, Hugo adds, ‘the fact that this ban is only for reef and rock habitats and only in 13 MPAs still leaves vast swathes of our so-called ‘protected’ areas open to this extremely harmful practice.’ 

‘Targeting these habitats alone doesn’t account for the wildlife beyond those boundaries and does not support the full recovery of marine ecosystems’, Hugo continued. ‘Allowing destructive bottom-trawling to continue anywhere in any marine protected area is completely incompatible with allowing ocean life to recover and flourish.’
‘Government has committed to protecting all offshore MPAs from damaging bottom-towed fishing gear by 2024. As an independent coastal state, we could use our new-found freedom to move quickly to introduce further byelaws to outlaw it once and for all across the whole of all marine protected areas. Our marine wildlife is in urgent need of safe havens that are not at risk from this wholesale destruction.’

Executive director of Oceana UK

Fishing for sand eels

A spatial closure of English waters of the North Sea to fishing for sand eel will be introduced before the start of this year’s sand eel fishing season on 01 April.
UK vessels are not permitted to fish for sand eel because the UK’s share of the Total Allowable Catch for North Sea sand eel is not allocated. The spatial closure will extend that prohibition to all vessels operating in English waters of the North Sea.

In March 2023 Defra undertook a public consultation proposing options for future sand eel management in English waters of the North Sea. Over 95% of respondents support some form of prohibition on fishing for sand eel, with a majority favouring the closure of all English waters. 

Sand eels are a vital food source for some of our most vulnerable seabirds and marine mammals, such as the iconic puffin and harbour porpoise, and commercially important fish species such as haddock and whiting.

This closure will bolster the resilience of these species and make space for nature to recover across our marine habitats.

‘The new ban on industrial fishing for sand eels is unequivocally the right decision and should be applauded. Sand eels are tiny fish – but their impact is vast. As the mainstay of many marine food webs, protecting these fish helps protect our awe-inspiring ocean wildlife. Up to half the diet of whales such as humpback and minke is made up of sand eels, for instance.
‘The next steps are to extend this ban beyond the North Sea to throughout UK waters, working in partnership with the devolved administrations. Secondly, we must not forget other small fish that are also vital food for ocean life. Sprat, for example, are important for harbour porpoises and grey seals, yet catches have persistently exceeded the scientific advice – the government needs to act to protect them too.
‘Our marine life is already facing multiple severe threats: from industrial fishing to the climate crisis, diseases like avian flu and pollution of many kinds. Protecting these fish and habitats is a vital part of building the resilience of our seas.’

Executive director of Oceana UK

Restoring ecosystems

To bring us closer to achieving the global goal to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, a new framework for National Parks and National Landscapes to help them better deliver for nature and access will also be published.

This builds on the commitments the government set out at COP28, including a map which demonstrates which areas of land could contribute to the 30by30 target in England.
The framework will support the Protected Landscapes and landowners to deliver the Environmental Improvement Plan targets including tree planting and peatland restoration which are essential for sequestering and storing carbon to mitigate the impacts of climate change while supporting biodiversity.

‘Restoring thriving ecosystems is a vital process, not only for meeting our national Nature recovery goals, but also for our food and water security, wellbeing and economic prosperity.  
‘The measures set out by the government today will take us closer to meeting our ambitious 2030 targets, both on land and at sea. Natural England has played a key role over the last year delivering the commitments set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan and we look forward to continuing to work in close partnership with government to accelerate delivery on the ground.’

Chair of Natural England

Funding for peatlands

The government has also announced the recipients of £7 million of awards to improve lowland peat soils.
Peatlands are our largest terrestrial carbon store, however, as a result of centuries of drainage for agriculture, just 1% of England’s lowland peatlands remain in a near-natural state, and these drained peatlands account for 88% of all greenhouse gas emissions from England’s peat. 
The 34 projects, spread across England’s lowland peat regions such as the Cambridgeshire Fens and Somerset Levels, will use government funding to improve the management of water on lowland peat and enhance understanding of climate change impacts and flood risk.

They include projects that will use innovative technologies, such as telemetry, to precisely control water retention levels across the landscape.

‘The ban sand eel fishing in the North Sea is crucial to support the survival of iconic species like puffins and the many other seabirds that depend on them – thousands of people signed a Greenpeace petition last year calling on the government to do just this. Alongside expanding the area covered by bottom trawling bans, the move exposes the difference between the many UK MPAs still open to threats because they only exist on paper hidden in DEFRA’s filing cabinets, and genuine restrictions on damaging industrial fishing that would be a gamechanger for UK wildlife as well as coastal communities.

‘Real ocean protection is urgently needed, both globally and in UK waters. Last year the government supported a moratorium on deep sea mining, a sea change in their position which, along with protecting species like sand eels in the North Sea, must be partnered with ambitious international oceans leadership. This year, that means ratifying the Global Ocean Treaty and bringing proper protection to the UK’s domestic MPAs. After all, the government has committed to protect 30% of both global and domestic waters by 2030, now they need to get it done.’

Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK

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