Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are being threatened by ‘destructive’ super trawlers according to environmentalists who are calling for them to be banned from all MPAs in the UK – including those off the coast of Cornwall.

This comes after a study published by Greenpeace that revealed that 25 super trawlers – none of which are UK owned – spent nearly 3,000 hours fishing in marine protected areas (MPAs) in 2019.

MPAs protect important marine ecosystems and species which are conserved for a variety of reasons – economic resources, biodiversity conservation or species protection.

Environmentally-damaging activities, like certain types of fishing, are restricted in these areas to protect habitats and wildlife at sea.

Marine Protected Areas in the West Country coastlines:

  • The Western Channel and Approaches – These waters are from South of Dartmouth, stretching around Cornwall and encompassing the North Coast waters of the South west until St David’s on the Welsh coast. In this area there are now 31 Marine Conservation Zones designated to protect rare and vulnerable wildlife and habitats.

  • The Eastern Channel – These waters range from the mid-Kent coastline to just South of the Dart Estuary in Devon. There have been 31 Marine Conservation Zones designated in the Eastern Channel so far, from the chalk reefs of Dover to Deal, to the seagrass beds of Torbay, Devon.

  • Padstow Bay and Surrounds – This site stretches from the shore to 50 metres in depth offshore where a kelp forest – which provides shelter for many species including the European spider crab – is being protected.

  • Hartland Point to Tintagel – This site protects kelp forests and algae in the shallow waters, while deeper waters hold underwater rocks covered in sea squirts and sponges.

  • Bideford to Foreland Point – This site protects a diverse list of scarce species.

  • Skerries Bank and Surrounds – Yellow staghorn sponge, ross coral, pink sea fan, and sunset cup coral are all part of the reefs in this area. The rocky shores are also home to barnacles and seaweeds interspersed with spiny lobsters, sponges and sea squirts.

  • South-West Approaches to Bristol Channel – This is a large and mostly offshore site home to sea urchins, worms, razor shells and sea cucumbers.

  • Cape Bank – Sponges and algal communities are protected within the Granite reefs here. There are also crayfish and Devonshire cup corals.

  • Runnel Stone (Land’s End)- Whales, dolphins and basking sharks are attracted to this area by tidal currents and high productivity. This site is also one of the UK’s best spots for critically endangered Balearic shearwaters.

  • South West Deeps (East) – The sea floor offers sanctuary to many species.

  • South West Deeps (West) – This site was designated to protect the sand and coarse sediment habitats found here, as well as for its relict sandbanks. These habitats support a high diversity of plants and animals, such as anemones and hermit crabs.

  • The Canyons – This site was designated to protect the deep-sea bed and cold-water coral reefs found here. These cold-water coral reefs are the only living record within English waters.

  • South of the Isles of Scilly- This area is particularly important for its subtidal sand and coarse sediment habitats and are relied upon by monkfish.

Super trawlers can be more than 100 metres long and “vacuum” up huge quantities of fish every day.

The presence of these controversial factory ships off the UK coast has led to fears over fishing stocks and spikes in numbers of dolphin deaths.

October last year saw a huge super trawler – the 6,200 tonne Margiris vessel – trawl through the South West coastline.

Greenpeace said the vessel, registered in Lithuania, was capable of plundering thousands of tonnes of fish from the ocean, although it was operating legally.

The organisation has today launched a petition calling on the Government to ban the huge ships from UK MPAs.

It calls on lawmakers to use new-found post-Brexit powers to put a stop to super trawlers fishing in MPAs.

Chris Thorne, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “Even an hour of super trawler activity inside an ecologically sensitive marine environment is too much, let alone almost 3,000.

“For our Government to be taken seriously as a leader in marine protection, it must ban super trawler operations in the UK’s Marine Protected Areas. Will our Government heed the recommendations of the Highly Protected Marine Area review and seize the historic opportunity Brexit provides to fix the UK’s broken network of Marine Protected Areas, or will it allow the flawed status quo to continue?”

A Government spokesperson said: “The UK is a global leader in the fight to protect our seas with our Blue Belt of protected waters nearly twice the size of England.

“The Common Fisheries Policy currently restricts our ability to implement tougher protection, but leaving the EU and taking back control of our waters as an independent coastal state means we can introduce stronger measures.”

AIS tracking data was used by Greenpeace investigators for all fishing boats over 100m to assess the amount of time spent fishing in UK MPAs.

Its data showed that super trawlers logged 2,963 hours fishing in UK marine protected areas in 2019 (the equivalent of 123 days).

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