Environmental campaigners failed in their attempts to strengthen post-Brexit protections against over-fishing on Tuesday night, as the government rejected a series of amendments to the fisheries bill.
Attempts to enshrine in law a commitment to keep fishing quotas within the sustainable limits advised by scientists failed, and an amendment aimed at banning supertrawlers from marine protected areas was also defeated by 331 votes to 197.
The battle will now move to the House of Lords, where peers are expected to try to restore some measures on sustainability and destructive fishing practices. However, the government’s 80-strong majority means only minor tweaks are likely to be accepted.
Victoria Prentis, a junior minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told MPs during a four-hour debate that the bill had to “balance environmental, social and economic needs”.
But campaigners said MPs had ignored government promises that sustainability would be a legal commitment in the reorganisation of the UK’s fishing rights.
Melissa Moore, head of UK policy at the conservation group Oceana, said: “It’s a sad day for UK fisheries as the bill will enable overfishing to continue as there is no deadline or clear duty to fish sustainably. This is bad news for fishermen as more stocks will be at risk of collapse, bad news for coastal communities and bad news for the public who love fish suppers.”
She said the bill weakened protections that the UK had under the EU, which has a deadline to phase out overfishing this year. “The UK government’s rhetoric that it would develop ‘gold standard’ fisheries management is a joke,” she said.
Luke Pollard, the shadow environment secretary, said: “The Tories have again voted against creating new jobs in our fishing communities, and stopping supertrawlers destroying marine habitats. Britain’s fishers and our seas deserve better.”
For more than four decades, Britain’s fishermen have been governed by the EU’s common fisheries policy (CFP), under which catch quotas are divided up among member states at annual meetings in Brussels. But the UK’s fleets have long been disadvantaged by the arrangement because governments agreed small catches to gain entry to the Common Market in the 1970s. About 60% of the fish stocks in UK waters were allocated to other EU member states under the CFP.
Fisheries reform was championed by proponents of Brexit as a key win from leaving the EU. Within the Brexit negotiations it has become a fiercely contested issue.
Ministers made a small concession on marine protected areas, by agreeing to conduct further research into whether destructive practices such as bottom trawling should be allowed. Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, told the Guardian: “The minister is now considering enforcing the existing law in 5% of our offshore marine protected areas. Why is this government so afraid of doing what is patently the right thing?”
Greenpeace also slammed the plans, under which very large vessels – supertrawlers, which can scoop up 250 tonnes of fish in a single day – will still be permitted to fish in marine protected areas, without trawling the seabed.
Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK, said: “Despite enormous public and cross-party political support for banning destructive fishing like supertrawlers and bottom trawling from our offshore marine protected areas, the government’s ambition remains pitifully weak. Fishing boats over 100-metres long have absolutely no place in so-called protected areas. Just because their nets do not touch the seabed should not mean they are given every right to haul hundreds of tonnes of fish every day from vulnerable habitats.”
The Conservative manifesto pledged that the fisheries bill would contain a legal commitment to fish sustainably, which campaigners said had not been met.
Helen McLachlan, fisheries programme manager at WWF, said: “The UK has missed an opportunity to take the first crucial steps towards ocean recovery.”