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Climate-smart fisheries can provide a win-win for fishers, the environment, livelihoods and wider society

Following the publication of a report on Climate Smart Fisheries, the Marine Conservation Society's Head of Fisheries and Aquaculture Gareth Cunningham outlines how the fishing sector is both affected by and contributes to climate change and how UK governments can act to deliver world-leading policies for fisheries, reducing emissions from the sector.

August 2021

In becoming an independent coastal state, the UK Government made commitments to become world leaders in marine management and ensure a sustainable future for fisheries through the Fisheries Act 2020. The act also included climate change legislation that specifically considers climate-smart strategies for the industry. This provides the potential for real change and should act as a model to steer fisheries policy reform in a climate-smart direction.

The fishing sector is both affected by, and contributes to, climate change. From direct damage from bottom-towed fishing gear to blue carbon sinks in our seabed, and carbon emissions from the fleet itself, there are plenty of ways in which the UK’s fishing fleet can modernise and become climate-smart. Unfortunately, the sector has also been hit badly by the effects of climate change to our waters; ocean warming is impacting once abundant cold water species such as cod and haddock and resulting in biodiversity loss across the marine ecosystem.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report delivered a stark warning that we need to double down our efforts to combat climate change and all sectors need to contribute to tackling the impacts of a changing climate.

Our new report, Shifting gears: achieving climate-smart fisheries, shows the extent to which the sector is adding to the climate and nature crises, while also recognising the need for increased research to help fill knowledge gaps as part of a new climate-smart approach.

The report finds that over 50% of the vessels in the UK’s fishing fleet are 30 years old or more, with the vast majority powered by fossil fuels. Based on UK fishing vessel activity data, UK fisheries are estimated to have emitted 914.4. kilotonnes of CO2 over a 1 year period; the same as providing the annual energy for over 110,000 homes.

By reducing carbon emissions that come directly from the UK fishing fleet, limiting damage from unsustainable fishing practices and protecting blue carbon habitats, our report outlines a pathway to achieving climate-smart fisheries:

  • Reduce pressure from fishing gears like benthic (seabed) trawls and dredges by incentivising a move to methods such as longlines.
  • Increase transparency and traceability across all vessels fishing in UK waters to improve understanding of the impact of fishing and aid stock recovery. This could be achieved by mandating the installation of Remote Electronic Monitoring systems with CCTV cameras across all vessels fishing in UK waters, to provide a true picture of catch levels and provide data to improve management.
  • Remove bottom towed gear from within existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) designated for seabed features, to protect blue carbon habitats, and limit towed gear impacts in important blue carbon sites outside MPAs.
  • Create incentives to decarbonise the UK fishing fleet and eliminate inefficient fleet structures. For example by ending fossil fuel subsidies and investing in fishers to move to electric and solar powered vessels.

Urgent action must be taken to change the fate of our seas, to achieve this we need to modernise how we source our seafood. The Fisheries Act 2020, was the first step in the UK’s journey to a truly sustainable, climate-smart fishing sector. However, the UK governments must work together to make this vision a reality. COP26 provides the ultimate platform from which the four nations can position themselves as world-leading, and create a global template for climate smart fisheries.

If the recommendations are delivered we can provide a win-win; for fisheries, for the environment, for livelihoods and for wider society.

Gareth Cunningham is Head of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society, follow @mcsuk

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.