nffo change mpa policy

The NFFO tells fishers ‘prepare to be displaced as it makes MPA policy change

The appointment of Richard Benyon as Defra Minister in the House of Lords has prompted a rethink within the NFFO on its approach to the management of marine protected areas.

To this point, our approach has been to challenge the Government’s shift from an evidence-based, adaptive, approach to one with more resemblance to a bulldozer. The appointment of the author of the highly partisan Benyon Report on Highly Protected Marine Areas to ministerial responsibility is a tipping point and suggests that this approach is a pointless furrow to plough.

There is only one question now. What is Government policy towards the many hundreds of fishermen who will now be displaced from their fishing grounds? In English waters, Defra/MMO’s intention is to introduce management measures for 40 offshore MPAs over the next three years – an insanely rushed approach that will leave no time for careful consideration, collation of evidence, or dialogue. Inshore, the picture is worse. Inshore vessels tend to have a more limited range and IFCAs are already overwhelmed by the task of implementing MPAs within the 6vmile limit. 60% of their activities now relate to MPAs.

Meaningful discussion with the fishing industry on how to achieve the conservation objectives for each MPA site, whilst maintaining fishing activities consistent with those objectives, offers the most equitable and effective way to manage MPAs. This approach has now been abandoned in England. Scotland, meanwhile, remains committed to a measured, careful, policy focussed on implementing MPAs whilst minimising the impact on fishing businesses and communities.

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Put bluntly, Defra is now intent on a reckless gung-ho approach to the implementation of MPAs in English waters. Serious displacement of fishing activities will be an unavoidable consequence.

This ministerial appointment makes it clear that for English waters there will be no turning back to dialogue, evidence and collaboration. Defra Ministers are not going to go against the recommendations made by one of their number. Only questions relating to displacement remain:

  • What will be the scale of displacement effects as vessels are forced off their grounds in a kind of marine Highland Clearance?
  • What is the Government’s policy to deal with the social, economic and environmental fallout of the new approach?
  • How does this fit with the Government’s levelling up agenda?

At present there is no policy on displacement. There is a void. Silence. Nothing has been done to assess the extent of displacement. Nothing has been done to mitigate displacement. Nothing has been done to assure the fishing industry that its interests will be seriously taken into account or its views listened to.


For those that think that our response to the shift in policy is alarmist, even a little hysterical, we would point to the debacle that is the EU landing obligation. Here was a policy in 2012 driven by a media campaign and political opportunism. Eight years on, it is widely recognised as an utter failure, a classic example of form over substance. It has destabilised fisheries management. The jury is out on whether it has reduced discards. Choke risks are a substantial and serious threat that distorts fishing activity and management measures. And all because of dishonest presentation of statistics whipping up a public hysteria. The Government is now looking for a way out of the disastrous policy that it advocated and supported without losing face.

It will not escape notice that the Defra minister leading the charge on the landing obligation and taking the green glory was – Richard Benyon MP.


How this new approach sits with the Fisheries Act, which requires that fisheries policy should be science-based, who knows? Not us. There seems to be a flat contradiction. The absence of an equivalent to the EU’s Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee, which provides as an authoritative, if not entirely independent, scientific filter for management policies is palpable. The nearest equivalent, conservation advisors, JNCC and Natural England, lack the independence or transparency to fulfil this role. Besides, they have not been tasked to study displacement effects.

It seems that the precautionary approach, or at least the Defra/MMO extreme interpretation of the precautionary approach, can be used as cover for anything. One can only suppose that the precautionary approach is the Government’s get out of jail card for the lack of an evidence-based policy. But it does rather make a mockery of the Fisheries Act, before that piece of legislation has got into first gear.


The new Defra policy on MPAs represents another violation of trust between the Government and the fishing industry. Marine conservation zones in English waters were designated on the explicit understanding that they would not be automatically closed to fishing. Assurances were made verbally and in writing that the social and economic impacts on the fishing industry would be front and centre in shaping management approaches that would achieve conservation objectives without unnecessary harm. Those assurances and commitments have been left behind, like so much offal. It is inconceivable that the fishing industry would have agreed to the designation of MCZs on the current scale had it been told honestly that these would be closed areas for fishing. A whole consultative exercise stretching over several years has been rendered null and void.

New Era

Our conclusion is that we have entered a new era. There will be no meaningful discussion on MPAs. There will be displacement of fishing activities on a huge scale. Our efforts as a Federation and as an industry must be focused on forcing the Government to face up to the consequences of its policies. Ministers must explain:

  • What work has been done to assess the scale of displacement of fishing activities from MPAs?
  • What will the cumulative effect of displacement be, when offshore wind and other marine infrastructure are included in the assessment?
  • What will the social and economic consequences of displacement be?
  • What will the environmental consequences of displacement be outside MPAs?
  • How will those whose livelihoods have been impacted be compensated?

This Government is already earmarked to go down in history as Edward Heath Mark II for its betrayal of fishing in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. A £100 million bung will not erase that stain. A bungled landing obligation has already been forgotten by the general public, but we are still dealing with its perverse and unintended consequences. Defra ministers are now about to embark on a further reckless and harmful policy to harvest the green vote. The bill will be paid by the fishing industry, vessels large and small, and £100 million for lost fishing opportunities in perpetuity will be chicken feed. More corrosive than the financial and economic impact will be the erosion of the fabric of our industry. Once a key component in the food security and cultural understanding of itself as a nation, fishing is being steadily relegated and displaced. Other national priorities, such as a trade deal with the EU and the development of offshore windfarms take precedence. A reckless approach to MPAs is just another thing on the list. There will be a reckoning but by then the damage will have been done. 

Marine Protected Areas and Fishing Communities 

MPAs have a valid and important role to play in the protection of vulnerable marine habitats and biodiversity. They are not a panacea or alternative to other conservation measures, but they do have an important role to play. Best practice in other parts of the world suggests that effective MPAs can coexist with certain types of fishing activity and that dialogue based on sound science can identify conservation strategies that minimise impacts on fishing activities and in particular avoid displacement effects and unintended consequences.

Hollowed-out fishing communities, replaced by second homes, can be the only result of the Government’s policies. For clarity, we don’t think that it is the Government’s MPA policy to force fishermen out of their communities and homes to make way for second-home owners. But that will be the effect.

At the very least, it is difficult to understand how Defra’s policy choices are compatible with its alleged levelling up agenda.

Learning from History/Institutional Memory

The Government may be flying blind, but we do have some notion of what could happen when fleets are displaced on a large scale. In 2003, under an emergency EU measure, a large area of the North Sea was closed to demersal fishing to protect spawning cod. The closure was driven by the worst of motivations: “The Government must be seen to be doing something”, always a recipe for superficial half-measures and unintended consequences.

Cefas scientists analysed the effects after the event. There were three:

  • Nothing much was done for the conservation of cod because most of the same fish were caught shortly after the seasonal closure was lifted
  • The Scottish demersal fleet was displaced onto areas rich with immature haddock where there was a massacre – with huge levels of discards
  • The Dutch beam trawl fleet was displaced onto pristine areas never fished before – with extensive damage to biodiversity and the ecosystem

This example should have acted as a warning against policies driven by emotion and the drive for green credentials – without a proper attempt to understand the real-world consequences of policy.

The Government of the time had learnt the lessons but there is no sign that this administration has taken them on board.

The lessons that had been learnt were the importance of:

  • A careful site-by-site analysis of how the conservation objectives for each site could be achieved whilst minimising the impacts on the fishing industry
  • Close dialogue with those who would be affected by management measures
  • Close collaboration in the design of management measures
  • An adaptive approach – meaning that lessons are learned as you go and management measures adjusted accordingly 

Lack of institutional memory is clearly a feature affecting both Defra and the MMO and we will all pay the consequences for it.


The NFFO is no fan of devolution, which has added layers of complexity to managing fisheries in the UK EEZ. Nevertheless, it has to be conceded that Marine Scotland have got it right and Defra/Marine Management Organisation have got it wrong. Scotland has adhered to its collaborative, careful, evidence-based approach.

Meanwhile, south of the border, the earlier systematic, collaborative, adaptive approach has been ditched in favour of an extreme interpretation of the precautionary approach. The consequences of this change are already being seen. The proposed blanket ban on bottom-trawling on the Dogger Bank Special Area of Conservation is the first offshore example. Whereas previous work pointed to a zoned approach which allowed that bottom trawling on some parts of the SAC would be consistent with achieving the conservation objectives, the UK government in flexing its post-Brexit muscles has proposed a blanket ban. But what then? Where will that fishing activity be diverted to? What will the consequences be there?

Similarly, the Secretary of State has approved the Sussex IFCA ban on inshore trawling on flimsy evidence and flawed procedure which doesn’t pass the smell test.

There are examples of good practice prior to Defra’s policy flip. In the Wash and North Norfolk Coast SAC, Eastern IFCA adopted a zoned approach combined with an effort cap of the brown shrimp fishery after a rigorous examination of the evidence. There is an implicit recognition that the Wash towns are dependent on the historic Wash fisheries and deserved fair treatment. The MMO and Kent and Essex IFCA managed to find a solution in a zoned approach to the Margate and Long Sands SAC, like the Dogger Bank, another sandbank MPA, but a vital fishing area for the Thames coastal communities, simultaneously under pressure from huge levels of marine development.

Marine Protected Areas

To repeat ourselves, marine protected areas in their various forms, (SACs, MCZs, etc) are important. Where vulnerable marine habitats and sensitive features are identified, carefully designed and implemented marine protected areas can play an absolutely essential protective role. They are less useful for highly migratory species, but fortunately other tools are available to minimise adverse impacts of certain fishing gears.

What is missing in the new Defra approach is a sense of balance or appreciation of the trade-offs necessary to achieve the best overall outcomes.

Fishing plays an important role in providing food security, and in sustaining coastal communities and a wide range of economic activity. Like all forms of food production, fishing has an environmental footprint. The challenge is to maintain food production whilst minimising adverse ecological impacts. MPAs have an important role to play in managing fishing’s impact – but there is such a thing as good policy ruined by poor implementation.

There is a widespread misconception that marine protected areas are or should be devoid of all forms of fishing. But the pursuit of conservation on land in our national parks and nature reserves does not necessitate nor involve the wholesale cleansing of those who work there and nor should it just because it is offshore. A wide range of sustainable farming and forestry are considered compatible with protected status.

What is important is to have a clear idea of what is being protected and the best way to do it. Some forms of fishing will be incompatible with a site’s conservation objectives or might only be considered sustainable with certain adaptations.

The essential point is to have the process in place that allows for the evidence to be gathered and the discussions held that would lead to the best outcomes – and where possible avoiding displacement effects. 


The repercussions of this volte-face will be profound. Aside from the consequences for individual fishing businesses and fishing communities, as the noose tightens on the inshore and offshore sectors, conflict and adversarial relationships can be expected to replace cooperation and collaboration. Competition for space, already intense in some areas, will become acute. MMO and IFCAs will become enforcers – the equivalent of bailiffs – rather than be enabling and facilitating regulators. The concept of co-management will remain on the drawing board rather than the aspirational lodestar that we had hoped for.

Crossroads Industry

The fishing industry is being buffeted by European, national and world politics and stands at a dangerous crossroads.

In the case of European politics, it is all too easy to understand that the UK fishing industry was made the poster child for the UK’s departure from the EU and “taking back control” – until it was dumped on the shore very far away from a future as a genuine autonomous independent coastal state that it had been promised by the Prime Minister and a slew of cabinet ministers.

In the case of national politics, the fishing industry also risks becoming a political football as Scotland edges towards independence and the Westminster Government throws concession after concession northwards to stem the tide.

On the world stage, saving the planet from irreversible climate catastrophe means lots of changes, including a massive expansion of offshore wind – which has the potential to cause massive displacement effects for the fishing industry. Even the miracle of global connectedness through the internet has consequences for fishers – as multiple trans-oceanic fibre optic cables are laid across the sea floor – another obstacle to avoid.

Standing at a crossroads can be a dangerous location.

Change is unavoidable. It is the only constant. But change can be ushered in in a good way or a bad way. The government could live up to its commitments to the fishing industry. The siting and development of offshore infrastructure projects can be done with the involvement of the fishing industry to mitigate the worst effects. All parts of the UK fishing industry could be treated fairly.

And a network of marine protected areas could be introduced to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, without displacing fishers in a new kind of marine clearance. The Government has chosen a different path and the consequences will be profound.

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Lords appointment triggers NFFO change to MPA Policy

by editor time to read: 16 min