Marine Environmental Regulation

The UK vision is for a “clean, healthy, safe, productive, biologically diverse marine and coastal environments.

In order to thrive, the fishing and aquaculture industries need this vison to be realised.  It is now widely recognized that sustainable management, that supports both the people and the environment on which we depend, can only be achieved through balancing economic, ecological and social goals. We are actually the first generation to have improved the situation in terms of seeking to protect and preserve the marine environment. Management of the marine environment is, however, extremely complex with no single body having overall responsibility. 

Key environmental issues for the fishing and aquaculture industries:

Water and habitat quality

Marine habitats are sensitive to fishing activities whilst, equally, the quality of such habitats is tied to the life cycle and production of fish. Damage to the habitat can therefore have a negative effect on the production of commercial fish species. However, seabed disturbance by mobile gear needs to be scaled against the magnitude and frequency of natural disturbance. Good water quality is essential for shellfish production and is recognized as one of the key issues preventing expansion of this industry in the UK. Together the indicators developed through the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Water Framework Directive aim to ensure we achieve Good Environmental Status. Marine protected areas are also viewed as having an important role to play in improving the marine environment, further reinforcing the role of Marine Spatial Planning Directive.

Bycatch and discards

Bycatch is defined as the total fishing mortality, excluding the retained catch of target species. Bycatch therefore incorporates the non-target catch which is retained and sold, the non-target fish which are discarded, the unwanted invertebrate species, such as sea urchins, starfish and non-commercial crustaceans as well as the endangered, protected and vulnerable species groups, including seabirds, sea turtles, marine mammals, and sharks and their relatives. Discarding is the practice of returning unwanted catches to the sea, either dead or alive, because the fish are undersized, due to market demands, lack of quota for the species or because of catch composition rules.

Indicators developed through the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the requirements of the Habitats and Birds Directives, EU Regulation 812/2004 on the bycatch of cetaceans and the UK’s international obligations through Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic, North-East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS) all require the monitoring and reduction of bycatch of protected species.


Rising public awareness has pushed the issue of marine litter high up the political agenda and galvanised efforts to reduce its impact. Out of sight is no longer out of mind. Marine litter is defined as any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment. This includes items that have been made or used by people and deliberately discarded into the sea, rivers or on beaches; brought indirectly to the sea by rivers, sewage, storm water or winds; accidentally lost, including material lost at sea in bad weather such as fishing gear or cargo; or deliberately left by people on beaches and shores. Of greatest concern are plastics which only degrade over timescales of centuries. It is accumulating in our seas and oceans, with some scientists predicting that by 2050 the quantity of plastics will outweigh fish. If left unchecked, it could threaten the seafood industry. Seafish produced an information sheet in 2016 Microplastics: Sources, fate, effects and consequences for the Seafood Industry of microplastics in the marine environment which was updated in 2018.

The EU has begun work on the Single-Use Plastic Directive and the Port Reception Facilities Directive which aim to curb plastic pollution at sea. For fishing gear, the Commission aims to complete the existing policy framework with producer responsibility schemes for fishing gear containing plastic. Producers of plastic fishing gear will be required to cover the costs of waste collection from port reception facilities and its transport and treatment. Fishermen already have the obligation through the Common Fisheries Policy to retrieve or report lost gear.

Alien and invasive species

An alien species is a species introduced by humans, either intentionally or accidentally, outside of its natural distribution. Due to the increase in the movement of people and goods around the world, the opportunity for the introduction of species outside of their natural range is increasing. Not all alien species have negative impacts, e.g. the Pacific oyster, an important part of the UK’s shellfish industry, is an alien species. It is estimated that between 5% and 20% of alien species become problematic. It is these species that are termed ‘invasive alien species’ whose introduction and/or spread threaten biodiversity. Invasive alien species can lead to changes in the structure and composition of ecosystems having detrimental impacts to ecosystem services, affecting economies and human wellbeing.

Examples of problems species in the UK include the slipper limpet which competes with, and can displace, other filter-feeding invertebrates. The species can be a serious pest of oyster and mussel beds and is listed under Schedule 9 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 with respect to England and Wales. As such, it is an offence to release or otherwise allow this species to grow in the wild. Another alien species is the American lobster, which is easily confused with the native European Lobster. Although there have been a few records of the species in the wild, it is still doubtful whether the American lobster can survive and breed in European waters. However, they can carry a disease, Gaffkaemia, which can cause rapid death among European lobsters although is not harmful to humans. Gaffkaemia-type organisms are present, but not prevalent, in European waters, and there are strict regulations that apply to storing American lobsters in tanks in the UK to prevent disease spread.

Climate change

Adaptation to climate change is a strategic challenge facing the seafood industry. Five principal climate change drivers are relevant: sea level rise; changes in storms and waves; temperature change; ocean acidification; and changes in terrestrial rainfall. Also of importance are potential changes in the distribution of commercially important species as a result of changes to environmental conditions. Seafish has worked with industry and external experts, Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) and Stewart Brown Associates, to develop a managed adaptive approach to climate change.


For more information, please email Eunice Pinn at