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After Brexit, UK Has an Opportunity to Decarbonize its Fishing Fleet

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Published Aug 22, 2021 6:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK regards itself as a climate leader on the world stage, showing the way with an impressive roadmap to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. It was the first country in the world to set statutory carbon emissions reduction targets in its climate Change Act of 2008, and in 2019 passed a law on net-zero emissions.

The UK has put “clean growth” at the heart of its modern industrial strategy, setting eyes on a greener economy. This includes the UK fishing industry, and in a new report, a group of NGOs - WWF UK, MarFishEco Fisheries Consultants, Marine Conservation Society and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) – have reviewed the UK fishing industry’s response to climate change mitigation.

Shipping companies are already working hard to reduce their emissions, and the orders for retrofitting and design for energy-efficient ship propulsion systems is at an all-time high. It is likely the fishing industry will be the next focus.

The new report contends that the UK fishing industry is commonly missing from greenhouse gas (GHG) assessments, something that has also led it to be ignored in climate negotiations. Inefficient fleet structures, government fuel subsidies and a lack of incentives to decarbonize are some of the leading factors that have allowed the industry to stagnate on reducing carbon emissions. A fishing industry that is non-responsive to climate-smart approaches stands to undermine the UK’s overall efforts on reduction of carbon emissions, the report warns.

Overfishing practices have also affected the capacity of marine ecosystems to sequester carbon. Coastal and marine habitats capture blue carbon - mostly in seagrass meadows, fish stocks and seabed sediment. This carbon is lost when destructive fishing practices degrades marine habitats.

In its current practice, how does UK’s fishing industry depart from net-zero emissions goals set forth by the government?

As of 2018, the UK’s fishing fleet was the seventh largest in the EU in terms of vessel numbers and the second largest in terms of tonnage. After Brexit, Britain is now an independent coastal state boasting about 5,911 fishing vessels.

Pelagic, shellfish and demersal fish species constitute the highest landings in UK by volume, necessitating use of bottom towed fishing gears during extraction. Extensive bottom trawling and dredging is a leading threat to blue carbon stored in UK’s seas, and potentially leads to release of carbon into the water column and the atmosphere, leading to GHG emissions.

Out of the UK’s extensive ocean shelf, only 1.7 percent is currently restricted to bottom trawled fishing gear. Further, of the 372 UK Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), only four covering 25 square kilometers are fully protected from fishing activities. Therefore, bottom-fishing remains unrestricted within UK MPAs, where important ecosystems, species and blue carbon stores ostensibly are to be safeguarded. Here lies an opportunity for the industry to decarbonize.

Additionally, with a relatively large fleet, the UK fishing industry requires significant fossils fuels to run. Most of these vessels are around 30 years old - the current lifespan of a typical fishing vessel - and they can be considered to be less fuel efficient, contributing to higher GHG emissions compared to newer vessels. Vessel operators are also entitled to fuel tax rebates, and “red” diesel is the most common gas oil used in UK’s fishing vessels. It is entitled to a tax rebate of 46.81 pence per liter (PPL), which equates to roughly an 80 percent tax subsidy, according to data available on HM Revenue and Customs website. Although in March the government announced policy changes to limit entitlements on use of red diesel and rebated biofuels, the fishing industry will continue enjoying the benefits of fuel subsidies.

Meanwhile, November 2020 was a historical moment as UK regained its control of territorial waters for the first time since 1973. The UK Fisheries Act (2020) brought this change about, and while the legislation recognizes the fishing industry’s contribution to climate change, it fails to mention the process for mitigation.

Nevertheless, the crux of UK’s fishing industry’s decarbonization concerns removing fuel subsidies. This “ would increase fuel costs for fisheries which is expected to reduce overcapacity and actively help move UK fisheries away from fuel intensive fishing gear types such as bottom towed dredgers and trawlers, towards more low emission methods,” noted the report.

Following the launch of the UK Clean Maritime Plan in July 2019, there are attempts to fast-track innovations in shipping and fishing industry that may ultimately help to reduce the carbon footprint. Take the case of Orkney’s SURF ‘N’ TURF project, which is utilizing renewable energy sources near the island and converting them to green hydrogen fuel for use by marine vessels operating in Kirkwall.

Arguably, the technology to support zero-emission fishing vessels is still nascent and expensive, but there is still low hanging fruit. The report highlights some key opportunities, including a limit to bottom towed fishing gears within the MPA and a mandate requiring Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) incorporating Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS).