Lawyers allege illegal fishing activities in North Sea nature reserve

ClientEarth has lodged an official complaint with the European Commission over what we say is illegal management of protected North Sea nature reserves, which have been left decimated by damaging fishing practices.

Our legal experts have joined WWF Netherlands in calling on the Commission to challenge the Netherlands, the UK and Germany over a recently submitted proposed management plan for the Dogger Bank – a unique undersea conservation site, and home to sharks, porpoises and other iconic species – that contains multiple breaches of EU law.

The nations have systematically failed to protect areas within the Dogger Bank, which is shared between the three countries, from damaging fishing practices, despite those areas being designated as conservation sites for more than a decade.

ClientEarth proposed that the Dogger Bank be a protected area in the early 2000s. Since then, failure to effectively implement protection and manage activities has left biodiversity in decline, affecting the ecosystem’s ability to support breeding grounds for many species.

Despite the site’s status as a marine protected area (MPA), the proposed management plan, submitted by the Netherlands, the UK and Germany on 19 June will allow the highly destructive practice of bottom trawling across two-thirds of Dogger Bank seabeds and demersal seine fishing, using large nets, across 95% of its area.

These fishing techniques are not only harmful to the seabed, as the ropes and nets destroy the surfaces they pass through, but also cause bycatch of sharks, cold water corals and other sea animals.

Lawyers challenge plan over ‘systematic’ failure to protect ecosystem

Tatiana Lujan is a wildlife lawyer in our London office. She said: “The fishing practices allowed in the proposed management plan are the equivalent of cutting swathes through a rainforest, using the excuse that it will grow back again. Each time the seabed is razed by fishing practices like bottom trawling, the recovery of the ecosystem is reduced dramatically, until it stops being able to support apex species like sharks and porpoises.

“The proposal put forward by the Netherlands, the UK and Germany is illegal under EU law on three counts and ignores the scientific advice that supports the restoration of these conservation areas.”

CEO of WWF Netherlands Kirsten Schuijt said: “It’s incomprehensible that the Netherlands, the UK and Germany propose to open this unique conservation area, part of the European Natura 2000 network, to fishing techniques that will continue to damage its precious seabed structure.

“Given that the European Commission is now pressing for better implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives, we are confident that it will seriously consider the complaint lodged today, that it will closely monitor the adherence of Member States to their responsibilities, and that it will take the measures necessary for the restoration of the Dogger Bank.”

Backed by a number of other organisations, our legal experts  said that the first legal breach relates to the failure to establish a management plan that is coherent with the ecological requirements of the site under the Habitats Directive, as the proposed Dogger Bank plan gives a green light to damaging fishing practices across sandbank conservation areas.

The second breach relates to the failure to protect the Natura 2000 site from further environmental degradation, as demonstrated by the observed declines in biodiversity.

Thirdly, fishing practices should only be approved if there is scientific certainty that they will not have an adverse impact on the sites – something the plan provides no evidence to support.

In their 19 June proposal, the three countries asked the European Commission to allow bottom trawling and seine fishing across the majority of Dogger Bank areas designated as Natura 2000 protected sites.

The European Commission must respond to this proposal by taking measures that offer real protection for the Dogger Bank. In the immediate term, enforcement of emergency measures are critically needed in the next 12 months to address the Dogger Bank’s current state of decline.

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Kellie Churchman