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Marine Protected Areas and Angling - A Discussion Document

Nov 25,2006 SACN

Marine Protected Areas and Recreational Sea Angling

(Draft - 28 Sep 2005)

(Note: This is a draft discussion document, not a positioning paper.  The views do not necessarily reflect those of SACN)

Who Cares?

When an environment on land is threatened, there is usually a passionate and organised response from the public.

Imagine someone setting out to destroy a wooded area so that the rabbits can be extracted and turned into protein.


When damage does occur, in full public view, there is an outcry and that public involvement in protecting land based ‘natural’ environments helps conservation organisations tremendously in their efforts to secure and enforce protection.

However, the same is not true for the marine environment.

The waves roll as prettily across the blue water whether what is beneath is a rich and varied ecological landscape, or a destroyed environment, with little sign of life.

And that makes the job of those who seek to protect the environment so much harder.

But wait a moment, as well as divers and marine biologists and a few other minorities that do appreciate what is beneath those sun-sparkled waves, there is a much larger group that are often passionate about the health of our marine environment.

According to a recent report (‘Net Benefits’) by the Prime Ministers Strategy Unit, there are 2 million people in England and Wales who went Recreational Sea Angling in 2002.

The recent ‘Drew Report’ commissioned by DEFRA states that 1.1million households in England and Wales has at least one member who is a Recreational Sea Angler.

Another recent report by the Environment Agency ‘Attitudes to Angling 2005’ says that 3 million in England and Wales have been Sea Angling.

That is a pretty large part of ‘the public’ who are largely knowledgeable and concerned about marine conservation.

And then there are those many livelihoods that are dependent upon servicing the Recreational Sea Angling Sector, and again there are the friends, colleagues and relatives of all of those people who are influenced by what they have to say on the subject.

If the ‘environmental lobby’ is looking for support for protection of the marine environment from ‘the public’ then here is a substantial number of people that are open to lending a hand and taking ownership for what happens beneath those waters.

Anglers’ Attitudes to closed Areas.

So, how do anglers’ view the prospect of areas being closed to fishing?

UK Recreational Sea Anglers have experienced a significant and continuing decline in their catches, year upon year, for a number of decades now, with the virtual disappearance of some species in some areas, and a dearth of large specimens. 

 That tells them that some species may be in ecological trouble.

In response to this, there is a rapidly growing movement amongst anglers towards catch and release fishing, where the bulk (if not the whole) of their catch is returned.

The sight of nets set close to the beaches and trawlers close in shore maddens them, and they blame the quantities of fish taken out of the environment by commercial fishing boats as the primary factor in the decline of their sporting opportunities.

Politically too, it is now being recognised that Recreational Sea Angling has a socio-economic value comparable with that of the commercial catch, at vastly reduced levels of fish mortality and environmental and ecological damage. 

 And with many livelihoods now dependent upon servicing the Recreational Sea Angling sector, particularly amongst rural coastal communities. 

And it is being recognised too that this sector has been badly damaged by the depletion of fish stocks (and particularly numbers of specimen sized fish) and that there is considerable potential to develop the sector if fishery management objectives are aligned to the needs of the sector.

(Many of the species that anglers target are of no great commercial interest e.g. mullet, tope, flounder etc, and anglers are interested in management that produces big fish, rather than tonnages of immature fish)

So proposals to close off areas of the sea to destructive fishing methods are instinctively welcomed by Recreational Sea Anglers.

So, why do anglers often lead the opposition when NTZs are proposed? 

It is perhaps natural for any interest to want to see those that are considered damaging to their interests stopped, whilst they are allowed to continue there activities unfettered.

But with Recreational Sea Angling it goes much deeper than that.

The amount of the marine environment that is open to anglers to explore is limited, because of physical restraints. 

For the vast majority of anglers the bulk, if not all of their activity, is limited to fishing from the shore and piers, so that their angling area is physically restricted to within around the 200 metres that they can cast (but the majority of anglers will never be able to cast even 100 metres!).

To reach more productive areas, some anglers are turning to buying their own boats, but with limited funds, these tend to be small boats that are not suitable for fishing very far offshore, or away from shelter (kayak angling is growing fast!).

Now, even in that ‘natural range’, much of the ground is either inaccessible or of little interest (most anglers have learned that it is ‘structure’ that attracts fish, and many areas are almost devoid of fish, with popular areas often crowded whilst miles of shoreline is disregarded).

Anglers also regard their activity as being of very low environmental impact, especially when compared to commercial fishing operations, so fail to see why they need to be further excluded from the narrow range of productive areas accessible and open to them.

What really irks is the often given reason that ‘It would not be fair to ban commercial fishermen from an area, whilst allowing anglers to continue to fish there’

The understandable reaction is ‘Well excuse me, but my sport has been devastated by the destructive nature of commercial fishing, allowing me to continue to fish would do little harm, but you want ME to stop so that you can be appear to be fair to THEM!”

(After all would you expect hill-walkers to meekly accept being banned because of the damage being done mostly by motorbikes and 4xWDs, and to be told that it would be unfair to let them carry on walking there whilst banning more destructive pursuits “because it wouldn’t be fair to the motorbike scramblers and 4xWD drivers”!)

But the most common reason for rejection of such proposals is the perceived lack of consultation by the proposers with those most likely to be affected, and the apparent lack of appreciation or concern that proposals will have on individual anglers.

That is understandable when an angler may have spent many years learning a ‘mark’, getting to understand the nature of the area, the pattern of fish movements, the effect of local weather conditions and the tides, the natural food sources and baits that will be taken by certain species at certain times of the year. 

And too, and perhaps more importantly, he/she has grown to love and respect the environment of the area. 

When they then read in the press, or hear on the grapevine, that some faceless body has decided to take away his/her rights there, regardless of the close relationship that they have developed with an area that they have grown to love and to ‘own’ as theirs (though they often feel as much ‘owned’ by area, as though both are an essential part of each).

Anger and opposition is the understandable result.

And yet, if they had been sought out, involved and shown the benefits, truly consulted on the best way to proceed, they could have been one of the staunchest supporters of the proposal.

The sadness is that with any one individual you only get one opportunity.

Having treated them in a way that stirs opposition to a particular proposal, you have created an individual that is likely to campaign, and support the campaign against any other similar proposal.

There are currently somewhere in the region of 1 - 3 million sea-anglers, with good prospects for increasing the number of participants.

Think about that!

Are they wanted on side, or in determined opposition?

So, anglers expect to carry on as normal when others can’t?

Well no.

Anglers are already aware of, and concerned about, the degradation of the marine environment and have demonstrated their willingness to adapt.

Increasingly practising catch and release fishing; changing the rules of fishing competitions so that fish can be measured then returned; voluntarily turning towards using barbless and/or circle hooks where their use has a value etc

And it must be remembered that whereas Marine Protected Areas mostly protect local, often sedentary populations of creatures, the fin fish that anglers target are simply moving through the area, perhaps feeding on the very creatures that the MPA is attempting to protect.

When there are good reasons, and the reasons are individually explained to them, and lesser restrictions simply won’t do the job, anglers will accept the need for them to be excluded from particularly sensitive areas.

But only if lesser restrictions cannot do the job.


- Maybe the seabed needs to remain undisturbed in a certain area.  Anchoring or even lowering tackle with heavy weights that drag in the tide can cause damage.

o Ban anchoring
o Ban bottom fishing, but allow fishing with top water lures and flies to continue

- There is a rich environment of sedentary bottom dwelling creatures.

o Potting and bottom trawling is out
o Anglers are targeting the transitory fin fish which feed on the creatures being protected, so their continued presence does no harm and may even benefit the objectives for restricting activities in the area

We could go on and on with examples, but the above does demonstrate that there is not always a need for a complete ban.

Other lesser well thought-out restrictions can often do the job just as well and will be accepted if given thought and a genuine consultation process is carried out (not just with ‘Sea Angling Organisations, but by identifying local individual stakeholders. 

A problem in the past has been that local opposition is quickly and effectively organised once the grapevine begins to buzz, and then no amount of ‘consultation’ with ‘recognised representatives’ will pre-empt that.

It is much better if a good deal of effort is spent on first identifying the real stakeholders and talking to them, rather than trying to meet head on opposition once it develops).

Other restrictions could include combinations of:

- Angling methods
- Times of day/Times of Year
- Species
- Size Limits / Slot limits (where both small and large fish have to be returned)
- Bag limits
- Restrictions on tackle
o No lead weights
o No weights over a certain size
o  Hook sizes
o Barbless Hooks only
o Circle hooks only

Plus a variety of other restrictions tailored to meet the objectives of the protected area.

What can Anglers bring to the party?

Well apart from the political implications of a large sector of ‘the public’ being seen to support and comply with the proposals, a number of things.

- Compliance

One of the difficulties, and the greatest expense, of the maintenance of any restricted area is ensuring compliance.

An area may be protected all year round, but it only takes a single tow, perhaps by a blackened out boat in the early hours of the morning, to undo everything.

Who hears, who sees, who cares?

The Environment Agency has long acknowledged that freshwater anglers are the eyes and ears of the aquatic environment. 

Often the first indication of trouble is an angler phoning the EA hotline to report poaching, illegal fishing, pollution, fish in distress because of oxygen depletion etc.

In the marine environment too, increasingly Recreational Sea Anglers are quick to report incidents of possible illegal netting, violation of bass nursery areas, the taking and selling of undersized fish etc.

Because they have a stake in that!

If they see that a closed area is benefiting them, they will support that, keep their eyes and ears open.

Even better if they are present in the area, fishing.

Who is going to violate an area with so many pairs of eyes present, so many mobile phones to hand?

Having anglers on side, on the ground, will undoubtedly increase compliance and lessen considerably the costs of enforcement.

- Finance

We have heard of at least one area overseas where the research that accompanies the implementation and maintenance of a protected area is financed from ‘licences’ to fish the area, sold to a limited number of angling charter boats.

Much freshwater fishing involves anglers paying, either for season tickets or day tickets, to fish many inland waters.  The better the quality of the fishing available, the more they are prepared to pay.

And many Inland ‘Nature Reserves’ operate such schemes where day ticket revenue from visiting anglers helps in the overall cost of running the reserve.

Sea fishing from piers too, is often subject to a charge per rod.

Such revenue-raising schemes, either on angling charter vessels or on individual anglers could be used in many ways to support marine conservation efforts and scientific investigations.

- Data

Anglers too can be a very important source of information.

Not only in producing catch returns, engaging in tagging of fish caught and released, but in their willingness to record their observations.

A condition of anglers fishing otherwise protected areas could be completion of catch returns and observation sheets, especially if consolidated information is then fed back to those providing the information.

But first anglers have to be allowed to fish.

Displacement of effort

A problem that often does not seem to be addressed in proposals to close an area is displaced effort.

It is all very well to close off (say) an area of a bay (which is likely to be the most productive area), but if there is no associated reduction in fishing effort by commercial fishermen and anglers, then everyone is left to squeeze together in the remaining ‘open’ area.

When there is talk of closing 30-40% of the marine environment, one has to wonder how the remaining 70-60% is going to fare, unless there is a corresponding reduction in effort.

Part of the angling experience is to enjoy the environment, which is difficult to do with other anglers casting across your line, and a gill-net’s markers bobbing in front of you.

As mentioned above, anglers are aware that the best places to fish often involves ‘structure’ of some kind.  An underwater reef or gulley, a rocky area, a slightly raised gravel bank etc.,

These areas can be particularly rich in biodiversity, and are often the places that fish come to feed.

They are also likely to be the places where Marine Protected Areas are most likely to be established.

If it is necessary to take away a productive angling area, which is likely to threaten a backlash from anglers, then that situation can be turned into a ‘win-win’ situation by not just closing an area, but by involving sea anglers in creating a compensatory area close by, where a previously unproductive area is enhanced artificially.

Maybe building a rocky outcrop out from the beach, creating a close inshore artificial reef or gravel bank.

Such an allied project, involving anglers and angling interest in both the planning, and perhaps financing, of the project would produce a double benefit for the marine environment. 

As well as a ‘pristine’ area, which everybody is now on board with, there would be an ‘enhanced’ area that anglers can enjoy, providing interesting research opportunities and helping to deliver on the overall aim of restoring and conserving the marine environment.   

Protection • Reinstatement • Enhancement

Nearly all proposals for protected areas involve protecting existing sites, displacing existing effort.

It may be more productive, and more politically acceptable, to take an area that has been damaged (say) by beam trawling, and to protect it whilst taking physical action to restore its original characteristics.

Because the area will have been of no or little value, because of its damaged state, there is unlikely to be any great problem with excluding activities whilst it is being recovered and beyond, but there is likely to be interest in the additional benefits accruing to the overall marine environment, and stakeholders, from its reinstatement.

Similarly, areas that are currently of no special interest could be enhanced by the construction of reefs, gravel beds etc, that would increase the biodiversity of the area, without having disturbed any existing stakeholder interest in the area.

It could be argued that this is intervention in a ‘natural’ environment is not in accordance with nature conservation, but what has to be realised is that there are no ‘natural’ areas in the seas around the UK.

Just as the modern countryside is the result of agricultural activity, so our underwater seascapes and communities have been totally transformed by human activity.

(Charles Clover makes the point in his book ‘The End of the Line’ that the North Sea was probably once a clear water sea when much of it was occupied by huge oyster and mussel beds, covering and consolidating the bottom sediment, and constantly filtering the sea water).

Just as previously used land can be enhanced by planting hedges, and re-introducing plants known to improve bio-diversity, there should be no reason not to consider similarly enhancing (or restoring) the structure of the underwater land in a similar fashion.

Choosing what to protect

Very often conservationists, with little experience of the marine environment will see protected areas as areas similar to protected areas on land.

But whereas a land area is fairly static environmentally (woods tend to stay in the same place, and so do the squirrels that occupy them!), things are very different around our coasts.

The creatures of the sea do not tend to occupy a ‘place’ but conduct their lives according to the water around them, moving from area to area as things change, with the seasons, with the tides, with the currents.

Salt marsh, sandbanks, coastal pebbles, channels etc, all tend to move about. 

The water will differ in salinity, ph values, temperature, and thus the kind of plankton it holds etc.,

Ask any fisherman, things can be very different between two tides, with a complete exchange, appearance or disappearance of species.

Many existing NTZs are based in tropical zones, where reefs and the colonies that they support are fairly static, and yes there are such areas in temperate waters, but by far the biggest area of the sea around our coasts is constantly in environmental transition.

The problem with picking a spot, and declaring that this geographic area is now a No Take Zone, is that most of the species of interest to anglers will not be part of that geographically fixed community, just moving through, so there will be no advantage to anglers (or commercial fishermen targeting non sedentary species).

What would help with fin fish species is to identify areas where they sometimes gather together, and thus become exceptionally vulnerable.  Spawning areas and feeding areas etc.

(Such places do have their equivalents on land where for some times of the year, they become important staging areas for migrating birds).

Anglers would almost certainly back the closing off of spawning areas, and seasonal closures, designed to protect otherwise geographically distributed populations at those times when they gather together and become very vulnerable.

Total Opposition?

At Whitsand Bay, anglers have demonstrated that they can organise and successfully scupper plans for Marine Protected Areas.

And in other areas anglers have mounted opposition to measures to protect areas rather than providing support for such measures in the face of strong opposition from more extractive users. 

The tragedy has been that in these instances, opposition arose because of a lack of consultation and involvment, and once underway and committed, it became impossibly difficult to engage objectively with the angling lobby, to explore the benefits available, as well as explain the reason for any ‘negatives’ and to develop a ‘win-win’ outcome acceptable to all.

The greater tragedy is now there are a number of people within the angling lobby who are firmly committed to opposing Marine Protected Areas in principle, and experience in organising opposition.

It could have been so different!

And in the United States (for example), things are far more advanced.

With opposition to MPAs by anglers increasing, and the political power of such a large lobby group aligning itself with other interests who are opposed, some states are adopting ‘Freedom to Fish’ Acts, aimed at taking down or weakening existing MPAs.

And this has led to a damaging, unnecessary and unhelpful split between the otherwise environmentally aware angling lobby and the ‘green movement’ which then has to realign its own resources and energies to meet the opposition from the angling lobby, when both movements should be, and could easily have been working together for the same ends.

We really do not want to see that situation developing in Europe, there is far too much to lose, and so much that can be gained by taking a very different path.


 Recreational Sea Anglers are a significant population within the general public who are often passionate about the marine environment.

 Recreational Sea Angling has suffered greatly from the effects of overfishing by the commercial fleet and are instinctively inclined to support marine conservation measures, including Marine Protected Areas

 Anglers are already restricted to a very limited part of the overall  marine environment, close to the shore and mainly close inshore.

 Anglers see no reason to restrict their low impact activities ‘to be fair’ to those who have massively damaged the stocks and taken away the fish.

 If anglers are not properly involved in the consultation process and their needs taken into account, they can easily be turned into opponents and you may only get one chance of making either a lifelong ally or enemy. 

 Anglers are prepared to accept restrictions to protect the marine environment, so long as these are proportionate and necessary.  Restrictions proposed on the basis of dogma or politics will be opposed.

 Anglers who have been sold on the benefits of a Marine Protected Area can help

o Unofficially police the area leading to more effective and cheaper compliance
o Help to finance the measures through charging
o Provide valuable catch return, and other data that can be used for monitoring  the benefits

 Thought needs to be given to displacement of effort from protected areas which may be more damaging to the overall environment in the long term and lead to increased competition for the reduced accessibility of resources.

 The current marine environment has been modified by man’s activities and is no longer in a natural state.  We should also consider restoring or enhancing currently unproductive areas and protecting them, rather than taking existing used areas away from stakeholders.

 Protecting areas where otherwise scattered populations of fish congregate to spawn and feed will provide protection when they are exceptionally vulnerable and such measures would probably be acceptable to most anglers.

 When productive angling areas are taken away, compensation in the form of enhancing the environment in other areas will ameliorate opposition and even consolidate support

 At all costs the situation must be avoided where angling interests are in total opposition to MPAs, tying up valuable resources and increasing costs of the proposing bodies.

 Anglers can be powerful allies or a powerful opposition

Most anglers are very conscious of marine conservation issues and have seen first hand the degradation of fish stocks and the marine environment, and are anxious that action is taken to reverse the damage that has been done.

They are instinctively in favour of creating protected areas.

They represent a huge number of people who are potential supporters of the concept of protected areas and of other marine conservation actions.

However, they also represent a lobby significant that, unless included and unnecessarily restricted because of dogmatic and political considerations, could become staunch opponents of such measures, and instinctively opposed to any marine measures suggested by the ‘green lobby’.

Such opposition, if it was allowed to arise, could prove very expensive; in financial terms, in the tying up of resources and thereby lost opportunities, in degradation of public commitment to projects, and in lengthening timescales.

It would be a tragedy if that were to be allowed to happen.

(See also - The Golden Mile )


Related news

» Angling to be allowed in UK Marine Protected Areas
by SACN posted on Nov 13,2006
» Marine Protected Areas, No Take Zones
by Leon posted on Aug 03,2000
» The 'Golden Mile'
by SACN posted on Aug 08,2006
» SACN at Conference on Angling and MPAs
by SACN posted on Sep 17,2006
» Evidence to Marine Bill Select Committee
by SACN posted on Jul 11,2008

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