The Crown Estate is one of the UK's largest property owners and has control and ownership over the seabed. However, in a recent paper published by Tom Appleby of Bristol University's School of Law it has been reported that the crown estate may not be looking after the biodiversity of the seabed. His report examines a dispute between local fisherman and environmentalists on the management of Lyme Bay, an area of the English Channel owned by the Crown Estate.
His research focuses on the competing rights of commercial scallop dredgers fishing in Lyme Bay. Scallop dredgers use a technique that involves dragging steel bags with sprung-loaded teeth across the seabed, and research suggests that this dredging technique has damaged the reef situated within Lyme Bay, this reef is inhabited by a number of rare marine species including the protected pink sea fan (Eunicella verrucosa). To see a video of a scallop dredger in action click here. At this point in time nearly all fishing in UK waters is permitted, however the Crown Estate’s sea-bed is governed by differing legislations, these include the 2006 Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) bill which states that “all public authorities must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is possible, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity”. In addition to this the area is also part of a UK biodiversity action plan to maintain the reef and the natural life it supports. It is also important to note that under The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act it is a criminal offence to damage certain species, included in this bill is the pink sea fan. The research paper highlights the need for clarification in the law as to whether such excessive damage to Crown Estate property can take place as a legitimate activity for those in pursuit of the public right to fish, without causing a wrongful act to the owner of the sea-bed, it also proposes that The Crown Estate should actively manage its marine estate to protect biodiversity and stop harmful fishing practices where necessary to stop such damage.
This case can be compared to a recent ban of Scallop dredging within the Fal estuary where conservationists successfully threatened to take the Government to the European Court for failure to protect marine wildlife. The Fal estuary was designated a special area of conservation (SAC) 12 years ago and a voluntary agreement among fishermen was made which involved dredging for scallops in selected areas of the Fal for two months of the year, this agreement subsequently failed and conservationists accused the Government of allowing the destruction of protected Maerl beds which can take thousands of years to grow. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has taken the advice of Natural England and its conservation advisers, and has said it intends to prohibit beam trawling, trawling and scallop dredging permanently from November this year, after which only fishing with hook and line will be permitted. The ban sets an example for delicate habitats in protected areas all around our coastline as this is one of the few times commercial fishing activity has ever been banned for conservation reasons in the sea around Britain's coast. Will the situation at Lyme bay follow the same path?
To view an overview of the Fal estuary’s dredging ban click here.