Author Dr Tony Whitbread
I am bitterly disappointed by the government’s feeble attempt at marine nature conservation coming from the recent announcement about Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs).
Defra has now released its long-awaited consultation on the next stages of designation of Marine Conservation Zones in English and non-devolved waters and proposes to designate only 31 of the 127 sites recommended by experts and stakeholders at the end of August last year. This is less than 25% of what experts say was the minimum required in order to deliver an effective marine ecological network.
The 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.
In Sussex only three of the ten proposed sites are going forward and none at all are progressing in Hampshire.
You can visit these zones on our interactive map and see some of the wonders they are home to at www.wildlifetrusts.org/MCZmap
Marine Conservation Zones should have protected the species and habitats found within them from the most damaging and degrading activities whilst mostly allowing sustainable activity to continue. The network was designed to ensure that we don’t end up with isolated and vulnerable sites and to ensure that the wide range of marine habitats found in UK seas are protected. Failure to designate all but a very small proportion of sites recommended by these stakeholders will mean that we lack the ecologically coherent network that our seas so badly need to recover.
The UK’s marine habitats are rich and diverse but largely unprotected - which is why The Wildlife Trusts spent a decade promoting the Marine and Coastal Access Act, eventually adopted in 2009. This included a commitment to designate this ecologically coherent marine network of protected areas.
Our surrounding seas have an astonishingly varied range of submerged landscapes which support wonderful marine life: from cold water coral beds to sponge meadows, canyons and sandbanks. Without these there simply wouldn't be any fish, let alone fantastic jewel anemones, seahorses, dolphins, brittlestars and all the other wild and extraordinary creatures which are part of a healthy marine ecosystem.
Despite the variety of fantastic species and habitats, our marine environment is in severe decline. In the last 400 years, two species of whale and dolphin have gone extinct in UK waters and of the 11 commonly sighted species found in UK waters, all are in decline. Basking shark numbers have declined by 95% and species such as the common skate, once abundant in our waters are now critically endangered. For too long, we have taken this environment for granted, taking too much, with too little care, destroying fragile habitats.
Designation of an ecologically coherent network would have provided our seas with the protection they need to recover from past abuses and help them to be restored to their full potential.
This shirking of responsibility is now a significant failure of government.
Whilst many fishermen have campaigned against MCZs, I do not blame the fishermen. Indeed they have been the greatest victims of failure in regulation for decades. An effective network of MCZs would have stimulated the recovery of marine life including commercially exploitable fish. Some have presented MCZs as something that is being taken away from the fishermen when in fact the opposite is the case. Evidence from around the world shows that even where areas are restricted to fishing the local seas become so much more productive that far more fish are caught overall. In other words, looking after the marine environment properly provides more fish, not less.
Also, I know our local MPs have been active in supporting the Marine Act and in promoting MCZs.
Lack of information has been blamed but this is a pure smoke-screen. After all this time, expense and the involvement of so many experts it is about as clear as it can be that this functional network of protected areas is vital to restore Living Seas.
So what has gone wrong?
I think the blame lies on the promotion of half-baked ideas of the socio-economic impacts, driven largely by The Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. A bland mantra promoting the removal of (perceived) blocks to (undefined) economic growth seems to be thwarting all attempts of more rational progress. In spite of good work being done elsewhere in government, they seem to have lost touch with the fundamentals that underpin the country’s economy – the environment. Without fish you can’t have a fishing industry. Reducing exploitation of something that is over-exploited is a sensible economic decision, not one that blocks the economy. To do otherwise is like insisting on chopping more trees down once the forest has gone, like digging a deeper mine even though you know there are no more minerals or like trying to extract more water out of a well that is already dry. Closing eyes and carrying on regardless is economically disastrous as well as being ecologically devastating. The sea is far too important to allow second-level issues to subvert a far more important primary objective – that of protecting the resource on which we all rely.
The Wildlife Trusts will be responding to the Government consultation at the end of January. We will be publishing our recommendations on the consultation on our webpage. Meanwhile, we urge those interested in responding to the consultation, to sign up to be an MCZ friend so that we can contact you when we have considered our response to the consultation. Go to www.wildlifetrusts.org/MCZfriends to sign up.