Environmental organisations have warned that the Danish sea floor is not being adequately protected from dangerous fishing practices such as trawling and dredging, and experts are now arguing that only a total ban would allow marine ecosystems to recover.
One of the ecosystems most at threat are boulder reefs that can be home to tens of thousands of marine species. But the boulders have been exploited for many years for use in sea walls and harbour defences, reducing the extent of these fragile habitats to a fraction of their former extent.
Danish boulder reefs were included in the European Commission’s (EC) Natura 2000 list of the EU's protected environmental areas, though trawling and dredging is still allowed near them – practices that experts argue should be banned outright.
“We should completely forbid trawling in boulder and bubble reefs because they are so damaging,” Karsten Dahl, a Marine biologist with Aarhus University told Politiken newspaper.
The EC last week chastised the government for not doing enough to protect sea floor habitats in Natura 2000 areas, and threatened legal action unless the government upheld its commitments.
Responding to the call, the fisheries minister, Mette Gjerskov, said action needed to be taken and that she would delay handing out mussel dredging permits in the Lillebælt waterway for three weeks while the government examined the issue.
“The former government took their time in identifying marine areas to be covered by Natura 2000 and make plans for them. Now we are ready for banning trawling and dredging on both bubble and boulder reefs,” Gjerskov told Politiken.
Greenpeace welcomed the decision but argued it had been a long time coming.
“Today it is completely legal for trawlers to drag their heavy nets right through a boulder reef that the government had otherwise selected as an area worthy of protection” Greenpeace fisheries correspondent Hanne Lyng Winter wrote on the organisation’s website.
Lyng criticised the government’s decision not to ban trawling outright, a practice Greenpeace argues can wipe out life on the sea floor. According to Politiken, only the boulder reefs protected as Natura 2000 areas will be protected with 240 meter buffer zones 240 meter buffer zones from trawling and dredging.
“This approach using buffer zones isn’t very ambitious and, according to by my best assessment, it would only protect the reefs against direct destruction but will not benefit the entire ecosystem or sea floor biodiversity.”
She added that the buffer zones would be difficult to enforce and would create small protected pockets on the sea floor, a practice the EC advises against.
Lyng conceded that the government’s efforts were a first step in the right direction, but added that much more needed to be done to help Denmark’s marine wildlife recover from overfishing.
This is not the first time Denmark has been chastised by the EC for not living up to commitments to enforce environmental protection. In 2010 the EC wrote to the previous government over complaints from environmental organisations that it was not doing enough to protect marine Natura 2000 areas from mussel dredging.