Newlyn Fish Market - boats due to land.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021


“Closed” rather than co-management characterises the government’s first post-Brexit steps to defining its approach to fisheries management after the Common Fisheries Policy. Dale Rodmell examines the current proposals for this iconic site and what it signals for stakeholder participation in fisheries.


Becoming an independent coastal state, the one consolation prize for fisheries from the dire outcomes of Brexit, carried with it the idea that fishing communities be brought more successfully into the orbit of a co-managed approach to fisheries. Gone would be the days of faceless Commission bureaucrats making decisions, without any dialogue, over matters they only half understood, while generating a host of unintended consequences in their wake. Now with these powers repatriated, rather than the UK government working through the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) has gained responsibility for managing fisheries for conservation purposes, including within MPAs, through its newly acquired byelaw making powers under the Fisheries Act.

But just two months in, instead of laying the groundwork for delivering co-management, it has replaced a UK government-backed proposal under the CFP to close to most bottom towed fishing gears around a third of the Dogger Bank, a large shallow sandbank in the central North Sea, with a complete ban on such gears. The proposal it replaced had received stakeholder input into its design. The MMO's has had none. Rather than moving forward to bring resource users closer to decision-making, the punishing reversal and the remote-control way it arrived at it, harks back to the playbook of the Commission's most tin-eared past.

It is also a reversal for risk-based decision-making based on best available evidence. A read through the MMO's consultation documents reveals that a hard-line language of precaution has replaced one of balance and managed risk. Under this approach, the nuances of the effects of towed gears on the most dynamic and resilient marine habitats in the North Sea count for zero. Validating what effects fishing really has through a monitoring programme that compares areas fished from those that are not - nowhere to be seen. The unintended consequences of displacing all this activity elsewhere in the North Sea and beyond is reserved to little more than a footnote ending with a question mark.

All of this comes as construction starts on four of the largest offshore wind farms in the same area about to be cleared of fishing, and Greenpeace, following its illegal and dangerous boulder dumping vigilantism on the Dogger Bank last year, starts a new campaign in the Channel. Fired up by its unsanctioned actions – it received not even the equivalent of a fixed administrative penalty (FAP) from the MMO (fishermen can expect much more for much less), Greenpeace's bravado that “it works" (1) is hard to refute.

So as fishing communities pick themselves back up from this hammer blow, how did it come to this?

From Co-designers to the Outcasts of Management

Planning fisheries measures for the Dogger Bank started off with high ambitions for a co-managed approach. Despite, or perhaps because it was a complex site to administer, spanning UK, Dutch and German waters, it was the first of any size containing sedimentary habitats to be progressed through the machinery of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The North Sea Regional Advisory Council (now NSAC), a product of the 2002 reform of the CFP aimed at fixing the broken relationship between the Commission and those that it managed, was charged in 2011 with coming up with a management proposal. Although significant progress was made between industry and NGO members of the NSRAC to produce a consensus proposal based on zoning areas where gear restrictions would be applied, without the guiding hand of official scientific input and without the actual decision-makers being in the room this proved not possible (2). Last year, the NSAC reviewed its experience with the process and made a series of recommendations to improve how stakeholder participation may be best married with science-based decision-making (3).


Although the NSAC industry, nor NGO representatives, were to have any further hand in the design of management measures, these proposals were used as the starting point for informing a joint recommendation between the UK, Dutch and German governments to close around a third of the adjoining SACs to bottom towed gears, which incorporated around a half in German waters. There were disagreements over precluding seine nets from the management restrictions with the UK and Netherlands arguing that they did not need to be included versus Germany which thought they did; Germany, therefore, precluded seines in the management zones whilst the UK and the Netherlands did not. Following the submission of the Joint Recommendation to the Commission in 2019, a review by STECF (4) the Commission's scientific advisory body, also highlighted seines as an issue, that further attention is paid to fishing effort displacement and control and that coordinated monitoring programme be implemented so that after a 6-year review period the appropriate location and size of management areas may be revaluated. Notwithstanding this, it considered “the final proposal represents a trade-off between protection of the sandbanks and socio-economic interests, in line with Article 2 of the Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC."

While all of this was progressing, in 2013 Defra began to introduce what it termed “the revised approach" to managing fishing in MPAs in English waters starting in response to a challenge that it was not doing enough to proactively manage fisheries within existing MPAs. This identified high-risk features for which management measures should be prioritised such as reef features and seagrass beds, whilst sedimentary habitats would be subject to more detailed assessments. Habitats subject to high levels of natural disturbance such as sediments in shallow water “where natural disturbance may be significant relative to anthropogenic impacts" were singled out where an adaptive management approach as an alternative to blanket prohibitions “may be considered disproportionate and unnecessary to meet the requirements under Article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive to take appropriate measures to prevent deterioration to the site." This approach was regarded as consistent with the “draft proposals for the management of the Dogger Bank SCI" (5). Subsequently, only last year the MMO together with the government's conservation advisors completed a project that developed and tested a participatory process using an adaptive management framework for making management decisions (6).

History Forgotten

All of this has been instantly forgotten like a dream in the post-Brexit new dawn. It has happened when there has been no fundamental change to the evidence base on the effects of fishing. If anything, where the MMO has undertaken additional work to quantify the fishing footprint on the Dogger Bank, it has demonstrated that it is smaller than might have been expected from a visual inspection of fishing track data. Nor has there been a fundamental change in the legal framework which governs MPAs that owe their origin to the Habitats Directive; this is all retained EU law. Nor can the government reasonably claim (as it has done (7)) that agreement from EU Member States made it difficult to introduce measures under the CFP; Germany had taken a harder stance than it had done. In the wake of the EU referendum, except for the Dogger Bank, it had also held off pressing forward with draft plans for a host of other offshore sites, all of which had been through a process of stakeholder engagement (8).

This matters not only for the Dogger Bank and the precedent it signals for the rest of the MPA network, with the potential for mass displacement of fishing activities risking negative environmental impacts and chaos and conflict as fleets come into conflict with one another for years to come, but also because it undermines the vital signs of good fisheries governance – trust and cooperation. After all, what is the purpose of fishing communities working with fisheries managers when after a decade of cooperation on generating a common understanding of the evidence and basis for management, at the 11th hour it is to be swept over the side by the illegal activities of Greenpeace and threats of legal action?

In a timely reminder of the potential sustainability benefits of co-managed approaches (9), Paul Hart, Emeritus Professor at the University of Leicester draws on several characterises of human behaviour from the fields of experimental and observational behavioural economics that may underpin successful management outcomes, including that:

- Those involved in designing systems for fisheries management and who have frequent interactions between members of a group involved in such an endeavour are more inclined to have a sense of ownership over it and ensure its maintenance.

- Those involved in contributing towards the management process (and evidence associated with its maintenance such as stock evaluation) are contributing to a public good that in turn legitimises their right to fish from which they exercise a greater interest in maintaining a suitable system of sanctions against free riders who undermine the system.

As Hart points out, giving more responsibility to the industry entails changes to the functions of management institutions where institutional path dependency to preserve status and power means that when changes do occur, they are often just incremental. It took a serious breakdown in the system of fisheries governance in the 1990s for the Commission to take a hard look at what was wrong, and even then, did not introduce reforms that gave industry any actual direct power over its own management; the work of the Advisory Councils is just that, advisory.

The Marine Management Organisation, a decade-old institution, is a relative newcomer to fisheries management and one that has only just been given expanded responsibilities. Notwithstanding the playing out of higher politics, this perhaps goes some way to explaining why in the face of the political signals of a green Brexit and coaxed by Greenpeace's dangerous antics, it has so easily swung into a lowest common denominator remote control mode of management. A longer-term view, both backwards and forwards is desperately needed if post-Brexit fisheries governance is not going to head down the same cul-de-sacs of its CFP predecessor. Fishers who are to be expelled from customary fishing grounds deserve a better and a more just response than this, as does the sustainable management of our seas.


1. Greenpeace blocks destructive fishing with new 'boulder barrier' off the coast of Brighton

2. Position paper on fisheries management in relation to nature conservation for the combined area of 3 national Natura 2000 sites (SACs) on the Dogger Bank

3. NSAC Advice on lessons learned from the Dogger Bank Process

4. Review of Joint Recommendations for Natura 2000 sites at Dogger Bank, Cleaver Bank, Frisian Front and Central Oyster grounds (STECF-19-04). Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2019, ISBN 978-92-76-11227-3, doi:10.2760/422631, JRC117963

5. Defra (2015) Adaptive Management: With Respect to Fisheries within Marine Protected Areas. Paper endorsed by the Fisheries in MPA Project Board meeting in July 2015

6. Developing a participatory approach to the management of fishing activity in UK offshore Marine Protected Areas

7. Defra (2020) Our response to Greenpeace's action at Dogger Bank

8. These include North East of Farne Deeps MCZ, Swallow Sands MCZ, Inner Dowsing Race Bank and North Ridge SAC, North Norfolk Sand Banks SAC, Haisborough Hammond and Winterton SAC, Canyons MCZ, South West Deeps (West) MCZ, Greater Haig Fras MCZ, East of Haig Fras MCZ, Offshore Brighton MCZ, Offshore Overfalls MCZ, Bassurelle Sandbank SAC, South Dorset MCZ, Croker Carbonate Slabs SAC, Pisces Reef Complex SAC.

9. Hart, P. (2021) Stewards of the Sea. Giving power to fishers, Marine Policy, 126