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Turning the tide – addressing the impact of fisheries in the marine environment

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

7th December 2004

Almost a third of UK waters should become marine reserves, protected from fishing in order to improve the environment and save threatened fish species, says the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1) today, 7 December 2004.

Sir Tom Blundell (2), Chair of the Royal Commission, says: "Currently, fishing is allowed unless there is clear evidence of damage. This needs to change. Fishing should first be assessed for its effect on marine ecosystems and be brought under a framework of environmental protection."

In its latest report, the Royal Commission finds that fisheries policies have failed and radical change is needed to shift their focus from commercial over-exploitation to long-term protection of the marine environment.

"We need to take positive steps to allow the environment to recover. Marine reserves should be created to protect 30% of the UK's seas from fishing (3). Intervention on this scale is necessary to preserve important ecosystems, and to break the present cycle of unrealistic quotas and diminishing fish populations. Similar measures are also needed across Europe."

The Royal Commission's report, Turning the tide: Addressing the impact of fisheries on the marine environment (4), concludes that fishing is a major threat to our seas - not only around the UK but globally.

More than 40% of commercial fish species in the north-east Atlantic and neighbouring seas are outside sustainable limits (5). A key scientific body, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (6), has recommended that no cod should be caught in the North Sea next year, making it abundantly clear that 'business as usual' is not an option for either the environment or for the fishing industry.

Large quantities of unmarketable fish are also discarded at sea, meaning that many more fish are killed than are actually landed. Birds and mammals get accidentally tangled up in nets and drown. Heavy fishing gears damage the seabed, destroying habitats that may take years to recover.

Sir Tom Blundell "It is hard to imagine that we would tolerate a similar scale of destruction on land, but because it happens at sea the damage is largely hidden. On land, we have had a planning system for over 50 years to control development and set aside areas for protection. Unless similar steps are taken at sea to allow recovery from decades of intensive fishing, species may disappear and the ecosystem itself be put in danger."

What is more, the Commission argues that the fishing industry will only have a viable future if it is placed within a wider context of stewardship of the marine environment, and its report proposes a range of measures to achieve this. The wide-ranging document also includes recommendations on fish farming, the health aspects of eating fish and on promoting the strategic planning of all types of marine exploitation and development. It also calls for end to destructive deep-sea fishing practices, arguing that deep-sea fish are particularly at risk.

Sir Tom Blundell said: "Around the world, there's evidence that creating marine reserves - areas where fishing is not allowed - leads to a several fold increase in the size and number of fish, shellfish and other animals. A third of the Great Barrier Reef is closed to fishing and countries like New Zealand and South Africa have plans to designate between 10 and 20% of their marine environment as reserves."

"Successful schemes also exist closer to home. In just 18 months, a closed area near Lundy Island, Devon, produced a three-fold increase in lobster numbers. Increasing such protection, along with other measures to cut fishing effort, could yield huge benefits for the marine environment in a relatively few years (7). "

"In addition, a system of marine spatial planning is urgently needed to allow the environmental impact of all activities - including fishing, wind farms, oil and gas exploration and conservation - to be assessed before they are carried out. Only a statutory planning system will be powerful enough to manage rival development pressures."

"We also need a new Marine Act to clarify the complex system of legislation governing the sea. It should have the protection of the seas as its primary objective; setting high level targets for protection and providing clear guidelines for users. Without this Act there is a danger that protection of the marine environment will come last in a long list of competing priorities."

"Last but not least, there are some particularly damaging fishing practices which we believe should be strictly controlled. One of these is deep-sea fishing, which can damage the sea-bed and result in the capture and death of other animals. Indeed, the sector appears inherently unsustainable because many deep-sea species are so slow growing, late to mature and easily fished ou
t. We recommend that the UK government should prohibit deep-sea fishing in UK waters, or by UK vessels, and press for similar restrictions at the European level."


The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is an independent body, appointed by the Queen and funded by government, which publishes in-depth reports on what it identifies as the crucial environmental issues facing the UK and the world. Its reports are presented to Parliament.

2 Sir Tom Blundell is Chair of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. He is also Sir William Dunn Professor and Head of Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge and Professorial Fellow of Sidney Sussex College. Sir Tom will be available for interview at the press conference, at the National History Museum Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD at 11 am on Tuesday 7 December 2004.

The Royal Commission’s recommendation is that “…within the next five years, a large-scale, ecologically-coherent network of marine protected areas should be implemented within the UK. This should lead to 30% of the UK’s exclusive economic zone [the sea out to 200 nautical miles from shore] being established as a no-take reserve closed to commercial fishing”.

Turning the tide: Addressing the impact of fisheries on the marine environment is the Royal Commission's 25th report. ((Alternative ECBC download if difficulty is experienced - pdf ~ 8.07Mb))
The Commission has also produced a short Summary Report that includes the key recommendations. Both the full report and the summary are available in printed form or can be downloaded from the Commission's website: Copies of the full report are available from The Stationary Office Bookshops (Cm 6392, price £65.00). The Summary can be obtained free of charge from Rosemary Ferguson (tel: 020 7799 8972, fax 020 7799 8971, email:

In a 2003 report, ICES advised that a total of 41% of commercial fish populations were outside safe biological limits, the status of 42% was unknown and 16% were within safe biological limits in the area of the north-east Atlantic, and adjacent areas such as the North and Baltic seas. See Environmental Status of the European Seas, available from the ICES website

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, provides scientific advice to the European Community about the state of fish populations managed under the Common Fisheries Policy. For ICES advice on the health of North Sea stocks, see the ICES website.

The Lundy no-take zone was established in 2003 with funding from DEFRA, English Nature, WWF with donations from Plymouth University and the Marine Biological Association. See the DEFRA website.


Press enquiries should be directed to
Guy Mawhinney (0207 7799 8986) or Diana Wilkins (020 7799 8980),
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution,
5-8 The Sanctuary, London SW1P 3JS
(email: or