Campaigners are calling on the UK and devolved governments to commit to ban harmful trawl fishing in marine protected areas.
The call came as conservation organisation Oceana released analysis showing there were 68,000 hours of bottom trawling last year in areas which have been protected to conserve seabed habitats.
Greenpeace has launched a six-month operation with its new vessel Sea Beaver to patrol the UK’s protected areas off the south coast, documenting and taking action to stop destructive fishing.
The two organisations have come together on World Ocean Day to urge ministers to commit to ban bottom trawling in UK marine protected areas (MPAs) as a matter of urgency.
Conservationists warn that the fishing method, in which weighted nets are dragged over the seabed to catch fish, destroys important wildlife habitats on the seafloor as well as releasing carbon that is stored there.
The habitats are important for the health of the seas and species including commercially caught fish.
Analysis by Oceana, using the vessel-tracking data platform Global Fishing Watch and cross-referenced from the European Fleet Register, suggests 68,000 hours of fishing took place in 2020 in UK MPAs highlighted for their seabeds.
That is up 10% from 2019, despite the impact of Covid-19 on fishing activity, the organisation said.
The data shows that 19 of the 64 offshore areas designated to protect seabed features and habitats such as rocky reefs, gravel habitats and cold-water corals experienced more than 1,000 hours of bottom trawl fishing in 2020.
Oceana said that since leaving the EU, UK ministers have the power to ban the most destructive industrial fishing vessels from MPAs immediately, but are continuing to license the activity.
Melissa Moore, head of UK policy at Oceana in Europe, said: “We are calling on UK and Scottish ministers to commit to ban bottom trawling in our marine protected areas, rather than licensing it.
“If they cannot protect this small portion of our seas, what hope do we have for the rest of our ocean?
“With the ecological and climate emergency we are in, swifter action is needed and the UK, along with all G7 countries, should lead the way to ensure marine protected areas are truly protected.”
Greenpeace said its Operation Ocean Witness, which will operate out of Newhaven, East Sussex, from June until autumn, will document destructive fishing practices still permitted in UK seas and the wildlife in the oceans, and engage with fishing communities along the south coast.
Greenpeace oceans campaigner Chris Thorne accused the Government of calling itself a “global ocean champion while allowing destructive industrial fishing vessels to operate freely in our protected areas”.
“We’ve heard enough rhetoric, which is why we’re launching Operation Ocean Witness.
“We will do our Government’s job for them, holding the most destructive fishing vessels to account and making sure our Government can’t hide the destruction taking place in our oceans, which so often remains beyond the horizon and out of sight for most of the public.”
He called on the Government to deliver on its promise to better protect the UK’s seas after Brexit, adding: “A world-leading network of marine protected areas, where all bottom trawlers and supertrawlers are banned, would revive our seas and coastal communities, unify our divided nation and make Britain a genuine leader in marine protection.”
A Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “We are committed to achieving a healthy and sustainable marine environment.
“Now we have left the EU, the Marine Management Organisation is consulting on additional safeguards for four of our precious marine protected areas, including banning activities that harm wildlife or damage habitats.”