By Dr Tony Whitbread
Life beneath the waves; out of sight and out of mind. The marine environment has until quite recently been a place to play beside, to sail on, a richness of food and mineral resources to exploit and a receptacle for our waste. Superficially the sea seemed to absorb the effects of anything and everything we threw into or took from it. The occasional media focus on impacts of oil spills on wildlife captured our attention briefly. But that public interest wanes as the images and reports of yet more oiled seabirds disappeared from the front pages.
We now understand far better how our industrial scale greed, abuse and carelessness has degraded the oceans, our coastal waters and the marine ecosystems they support. Survey technologies have advanced by leaps and bounds; we know more and more about the fascinating, beautiful, wondrous nature of our seas. We also understand much better the damage we've caused and how to put things right.
EU policy and legislation has been a double-edged sword cutting through the marine environment. Previous iterations of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) included landing quotas which directly resulted in fishermen unnecessarily discarding dead fish. This illustrates a negative consequence of the CFP but also highlights the need for continuous involvement to ensure a CFP that works for the conservation of our fishing stocks.
More positively EU policy and legislation is the source of most of the national measures which now protect our marine environment. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK include European Marine Sites and Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). In a bid to safeguard the foraging areas for EU protected bird populations, Natural England is proposing marine extensions to coastal Special Protection Areas classified under the EU Birds Directive.
So while there is still quite a long way to go before we can be confident that the seas and marine wildlife around Sussex are properly and effectively safeguarded, the implementation of EU legislation seems to be taking us in the right direction. It is worth reflecting that persuading our Government to take actions to safeguard marine habitats and wildlife has been a long, hard battle. Environmental NGOs have had to take legal action against the UK government for failing to establish Natura 2000 sites for the Harbour Porpoise (required under the Habitats Directive) and for failing to properly assess the risks to seabed habitats from damaging fishing activities.
I’m optimistic that the specific measures undertaken as a result of EU legislation and reform of the CFP will help our marine environment. But there are some significant battles ahead. One such issue concerns the contribution of shipping to atmospheric pollution and carbon emissions. The next time you have an opportunity to look out to sea from anywhere on the Sussex coast, try to spot one of the massive container ships which move though the English Channel and, if it’s a calm, clear day, look for the yellow streak of haze - a mark of the low grade crude oil these ships burn. Eliminating this requires changes in international law; something the power of the EU should be able to advance.