Measures include reducing destructive fishing in sensitive areas, powering boats with cleaner fuels and rolling out mandatory tracking for all vessels.
The calls come in a new report, Shifting Gears, from environmental charities WWF, Marine Conservation Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
It outlines the urgent action required by all four governments in the UK to ‘futureproof’ the fisheries sector, improving its sustainability and increasing its capacity to help tackle the climate emergency.
Estimates suggest UK fisheries emit the same amount of carbon dioxide each year as the annual energy use of more than 110,000 homes.
Scotland’s seas are estimated to hold more carbon – known as blue carbon – than the total stored in land resources such as peatlands, forests and soils.
Removing fish and using fossil fuels to power boats contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Now in the wake of the recent IPCC report and ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, the conservation organisations are calling on all governments to show global leadership and put the fisheries sector on a sustainable footing by adopting a “climate-smart” strategy.
Recommendations include limiting bottom-towed fishing gear inside marine protected areas and other key areas, decarbonising the UK fleet, including ending use of fossil fuels, and mandating electronic monitoring across all boats fishing in UK waters.
The report also suggests increasing research on the fishing sector’s environmental impacts.
The document concludes that adopting these recommendations will help safeguard UK fisheries by bringing about the recovery of the ocean’s health and helping to meet the triple challenge of sustainably feeding a growing population, reversing biodiversity loss and limiting global warming to under 1.5C.
“Nothing short of transformative change is needed across all aspects of society and the economy to avert climate catastrophe,” said Calum Duncan, the Marine Conservation Society’s head of conservation for Scotland.
“As we learn more about the important role our ocean plays in locking up carbon in the seafloor, it’s also crucial for the fisheries sector to move toward net-zero engine emissions and much-reduced impact on the seabed and its blue carbon stores.”
The industry has criticised the report, insisting fishing is greener than many food production methods.
“Wild-caught fish is already a climate-smart choice, with our industry producing healthy protein food with a much lower carbon footprint than meat and most vegetables,” said Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.
“As with all sectors, there is more work we can do,” she said.
“This is an industry that has a proud record when it comes to innovation and the adoption of new technology, with skippers constantly evaluating how to do things better.
“We work with government to ensure we are protecting marine features, including key carbon sinks such as maerl beds, based on a robust process underpinned by evidence.”
She added: “Our industry is committed to sustainability; indeed healthy stocks can be harvested in a much more carbon-efficient way than unhealthy ones.
“We must not lose sight of the fact that we are producing food, and wild-caught fish are a far better choice in terms of carbon footprint than other protein sources.”