Fisheries are one of the oldest and most widely distributed of all marine activities in UK waters. Chances are that new marine uses will interact with existing fishing activities more often than with any other sector. But fisheries don't occur everywhere with the same intensity, nor can the potential effects from new activities on existing fisheries be generalised. Some fisheries and fleets are more vulnerable to being displaced by new activities than others, and some are more likely to be able to co-exist within busy areas.
One of the key challenges is to decipher the level of importance of different fishing grounds so that they can be taken account of in a systematic way that maximises the chances of coexistence between different marine uses in marine planning decision making.
This isn't just something of value to the fishing industry. A more efficient marine planning system that can account for the significance of fishing grounds in a strategic way is likely to minimise the scope for disruption or conflict later on, so we all have something to gain.
The purpose of scoping the potential for core fishing grounds (in future likely to be referred to as fishing interest areas) was to begin exploring the possibility of a spatial planning policy that can better recognise important fishing grounds. This included a MMO workshop which examined different marine sectors’ views on such an approach and explored the practical issues too.
Although the first East marine plans include a policy to reduce the likelihood of displacing fishing activity, they recognise that the existing fisheries evidence base is not sufficiently developed to support more prescriptive policies. Key areas to look at include evidence gaps and how to update policies to account for change (such as seasonal variations).
We also need to define levels of fisheries importance. Focusing on economic or social value or measuring levels of effort may be of use, but there is also the need to factor in displacement vulnerability; accounting for how far fishing vessels can range from port, and accessibility to alternative grounds if areas are lost. None of this is likely to be straight forward, especially given the number of data sets needed for any analysis, so stakeholder input and some level of qualitative judgement will be important.
If we can identify core areas, what then? Well, having such areas mapped would provide a signal about their particular sensitivities at the earliest stages when planning for other marine uses. The right evidence would also be needed to justify when other licensable activities could take place in such areas. It shouldn't mean that planning in other areas where fishing takes place will be downgraded as a consequence though, as plan-wide policies would still apply.
Fisheries once pretty much had the freedom of the sea, but today it is clear that in our more crowded waters, defining the importance of fishing grounds is essential if our sector's visibility in the marine planning process is to be improved. This work is an important first step, and if such a spatial fisheries policy can be realised it will probably place England at the forefront globally for recognising fisheries within marine planning.