BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) and the North Sea Foundation, two members of Seas At Risk, bring good news for marine life in the North Sea. In fact, marine protected areas (MPAs) in the North Sea saw an increased level of protection for vulnerable marine species and their ecosystems, thanks to the adoption of the first fisheries measures against bottom trawling and gillnets. 

The fisheries conservation measures – adopted by the European Commission on 16 February and entered into force on 8 March 2023 – concern four Natura 2000 sites situated in Germany (Borkum Reef Ground, Dogger Bank, Sylt Outer Reef and Eastern German Bight), two in the Netherlands (Cleaver Bank and Frisian Front), as well as the Frisian Front and Central Oyster Grounds marine protected areas under the marine strategy framework directive.

Fishing on the seabed is now restricted in large areas of MPAs in the North Sea. The new measures aim to protect sensitive seabed habitats, such as sandbanks and reefs, from the destruction of bottom trawling; and to prevent harbour porpoises and six seabird species from being incidentally caught in gillnets and entangling nets.

Protection in the German marine protected areas: 

  • The Borkum Riffgrund protected area has been completely closed to bottom trawling, as well as 62% of the protected area of the Sylt Outer Reef. However, on the Dogger Bank, the largest sandbank in the North Sea, measures to limit bottom trawling are still lacking. These measures were part of the original proposal, but were excluded due to Brexit complications.
  • Gillnet fishing is banned year-round in the Eastern German Bight and in the Sylt Outer Reef during the period when harbor porpoises reproduce and birth their young. For the small marine mammals, incidental catches in gillnets is one of the greatest threats. In the areas of Dogger Bank and Borkum Riffgrund, where bycatch of harbour porpoises also occurs, gillnets will be limited, but no seasonal closure is foreseen.
  • The Sylt Outer Reef, celebrates its first fisheries no-take-zone, even if it only accounts for 0.64% of Germany’s marine protected areas in the North Sea. 

Protection in the Dutch marine protected areas: 

  • Overall, the newly adopted measures lead to a total coverage of 5% seabed protection (2,869km2) in the Dutch exclusive economic zone. This represents a major improvement, given that before, only 0.3% of Dutch seabeds were protected. 
  • Each of the proposals leaves most of the area open to all fishing techniques. Only some management zones will be closed to all forms of bottom-impacting fisheries. In addition, on the Frisian Front, gill net fishing will be forbidden from June to November each year. 
  • Now, 16% of the designated protected areas in the Netherlands will enjoy seabed protection.
  • The Dutch section of Dogger Bank is also eligible for protection because it is ecologically valuable. This has now been delayed due to relations with the UK since Brexit. The North Sea Foundation advocates for introducing measures in this area as well in the short-term.

Due to increasing human activities in the North Sea, ecologically valuable areas are increasingly under pressure and nature is deteriorating significantly. Limiting destructive fisheries in these areas represents a major step towards a healthy North Sea and will allow marine nature to partially recover. Moreover, the timeline agreed for the entry into force of these measures is in line with the EU commitments to ensure 30% marine protection by 2030, as set out in the EU Biodiversity Strategy. However, more needs to be done to duly protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, endangered species and degraded habitats in the North Sea.  In the coming years, BUND and the North Sea Foundation will continue advocating for effective protection of existing protected areas and strict protection so as to counter marine biodiversity loss, ensure healthy fish stocks, and mitigate climate change.