Government cuts back on marine protection

Though Britain has a healthy population of Northern Gannet, it is of world importance and sustainably harvested fishing stocks would help keep the species at its peak level. Photo: Merops (commons.wikimedia.org).
Though Britain has a healthy population of Northern Gannet, it is of world importance and sustainably harvested fishing stocks would help keep the species at its peak level. Photo: Merops (commons.wikimedia.org).
A public consultation opened to bitter disappointment last week, as 14 important marine conservation areas were excluded due to their ‘economic cost’.

The long-awaited consultation on the next stages of Marine Conservation Zone designation in English and non-devolved waters has just been launched, but with only 23 out of a possible 37 sites included, the Wildlife Trusts and other conservation organisations have been frustrated at the lack of ambition shown by the current government.

Marine Conservation Zones protect threatened undersea habitats such as eelgrass meadows, rocky reefs and deepwater canyons, and the animals that live in and around them, including Britain's threatened seabirds. These important sanctuaries for marine life remain at risk until more areas offering effective protection are established. Marine Conservation Zones should protect the species and habitats found within them from the most damaging and degrading of activities such as scallop dredging and trawling, while mostly allowing sustainable activity to continue. 

The Wildlife Trusts’ Head of Living Seas, Joan Edwards, said: “We are bitterly disappointed that the government has opted to consult on just 23 new Marine Conservation Zones and that some very important areas for marine wildlife have been dropped from the list. We are particularly frustrated that a number of sites – including some in the Irish Sea – have been removed because of the likely ‘economic cost’. 

“The Wildlife Trusts believe this is a missed opportunity to achieve longer-term gains that would benefit marine biodiversity and fishing. Ultimately an economic activity that is based on over-exploitation is not sustainable and has no long-term future." 

The centre-piece of the landmark Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) legislation was the commitment to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas throughout UK seas – a response to the widely acknowledged crisis facing the health, diversity and productivity of our seas. While this Parliament has seen the first designations, we remain a long way from the full network. 

127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones were chosen after two years of hard work by more than one million stakeholders from all sectors of the marine environment and at a cost of over £8.8 million to Government. Only 27 of these were designated as Marine Conservation Zones in November 2013 as a first step. In February 2014, DEFRA released a list of 37 sites to be considered for a second tranche of Marine Conservation Zones, which have now been whittled down to just 23 for consultation. The government is committed to a final third tranche to complete the network by 2016.

Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York, Callum Roberts, said: "The decision not to create protected areas in the Irish Sea on the grounds of cost to fisheries is ironic and misguided. Irish Sea fish stocks are among the most overexploited in the UK and are now on their last gasp. Two centuries of fishing with destructive trawls and dredges has stripped the seabed of its fish and once-rich habitats like oyster and horse mussel reefs. It will remain impoverished without protected areas; it has a chance of recovery with them – there is no in-between."

The North West Wildlife Trusts’ Marine Conservation Officer, Dr Emily Baxter, commented: “The muddy habitats of the Irish Sea are as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and coral reefs. There are also living reefs that support a wealth of species from sponges, crabs, lobsters and anemones to an array of seaweeds. At least 30 species of shark and a dozen species of cetacean live in the Irish Sea, including Basking Shark, the world's second largest fish.

“By postponing action to protect these areas yet again, the Government is leaving the Irish Sea open to an environmental disaster. Supporting sustainable fisheries instead of encouraging overfishing and habitat destruction would increase fish landings, generate more income and create more jobs in the sector. Decision-makers need to think of sustainable fisheries as an opportunity for job creation and increasing the value of fisheries rather than an environmental principal that comes at a price to the industry. Marine Conservation Zones are a vital part of this process.”

Joan Edwards explains: “Only this week, the government’s Natural Capital Committee published a report which shows that investment in nature makes obvious economic sense. The government must develop a comprehensive strategy to secure the recovery of nature in a generation. This must include the designation of a well-managed and ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas.” 

The Wildlife Trusts will be responding to the government consultation and plan to publish their recommendations online in due course. They say they will be urging the public to respond to the consultation as well, to help ensure no further potential Marine Conservation Zones are lost. See www.wildlifetrusts.org/mcz.