Saving our seas

| 7th August 2008
The Government says it realises our oceans are at risk from pollution and overfishing, says Dr Haris Livas-Dawes, so why won't it produce a marine bill with more teeth?

Our seas are dying. We’ve destroyed, polluted, over-exploited and overfished. Cod and herring, the two mainstays of the UK fishing industry, are in terminal decline, and whiting, plaice and sole are at grave risk. Trawlers raking over the sea bed have hoovered up everything in their path, wanted and not-wanted, including the very stones of the sea bed. Our need for cement to build ever more houses and roads has led to the aggregate industry removing too much sand and gravel, putting the final nail in the coffin of biodiversity. Add to this the assault of pollution and the symptoms of climate change apparent in the sea, such as greater acidity, and the situation becomes unsustainable.

Who’s upset by all this? Well, since water means life, everyone should be. Obviously the environmentalists are – and even the UK Government. DEFRA has just published a draft Marine Bill, which says that ‘protecting our marine environment is a high priority’.

The bill recognises the many commercial interests at stake and so is quite cautious (rather like the Climate Change Bill before all the irrefutable scientific evidence surfaced). It calls for the protection of the sea over a network of sites covering 14 to 20 per cent of our seas.

Unfortunately, this is not enough and Marinet – the marine arm of Friends of the Earth – has responded with a submission to MPs including all the scientific evidence in favour of giving the bill some teeth. It calls for a bill that places a duty on the secretary of state to establish an ecologically coherent network of Highly Protected Marine Reserves covering at least 30 per cent of UK seas out to 200 nautical miles.

The wording is important. ‘Places a duty’ means that the secretary is responsible and cannot simply opt out. ‘Ecologically coherent network’ means that the protected areas have to be mutually supportive. It is no good spotting marine reserves here and there in isolated pockets without scientifically established links. The word ‘network’ implies more than one or two; ‘30 per cent’ is a scientifically established figure and ‘highly protected’ is a key phrase.

The UK has already established three marine reserves, but only one is viable. The others are anything but highly protected; indeed, exploitative activities are still occurring in them.

Marinet’s wording means the entire ecosystem must be managed, from spawning fish to all kinds of sea creatures and the sea bed itself. This kind of protection would conserve the full marine biological system. DEFRA usually gives a lot of weight to commercial interests and their short-term profits, but if the full system is not protected we are going to see the extinction of our fishing industry.

The government’s Marine Bill is actually mandated by the EU’s Habitats Directive, along with a number of other international, European and UK commitments, but the Marine Protected Areas mentioned in the bill are not the same as Highly Protected Areas. And if at least 30 per cent of the areas are not highly protected it will not stop the collapse of the ecosystem. Early Day Motion 1141 supports the Marinet proposal.

Highly Protected Marine Reserves have been established elsewhere in the world with dramatic results. All fishing is prohibited, allowing fish to recover, grow larger and thus produce more eggs. These eggs ‘seed’ the seas beyond as the larvae drift out on currents. The result is more fish in the sea. There is also space and time to support the recovery and restoration of degraded habitats.

In the late 19th century there were 10 times more fish such as cod, haddock, plaice and ling in our waters than today. Dr Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York, has written: ‘The only way to counter the shifting baseline slide toward ever-greater environmental degradation is to look to the past and find out what life the seas are capable of supporting. When we know better what is possible, we can seek ways to bring it back, like marine reserves that are protected from all fishing.’

In several letters exchanged between this writer and Jonathan Shaw, the minister responsible for marine issues, he does not promise highly protected areas. He writes: ‘Not all sites will require such a high degree of protection and therefore the bill allows for us to tailor the level of protection according to the conservation needs of individual sites’. He does say: ‘We expect that some Marine Conservation Zones will need to be highly protected sites. In areas where we are aiming for full recovery, for example, the new mechanism will allow us to set stringent conservation objectives, which require the exclusion of all damaging or potentially damaging activities, effectively creating highly protected marine reserves.’ There is no specific percentage, however, as Marinet deems necessary.

‘I agree dialogue between all stakeholders will be vital,’ Mr Shaw writes. The ‘Finding Sanctuary’ project has already begun in south-west England and, he says: ‘we have asked Natural England and the JNCC [Joint Nature Conservation Committee] to establish similar stakeholder-led projects for other regional seas, including the North Sea and English Channel.’

A recent meeting between the Marinet Marine Bill team and Marine Conservation Society officers discussed the commercial interests that will have to be taken into consideration. Most contentious will be what happens in our territorial waters. Beyond the 12 nautical miles and up to 200 it shouldn’t be too difficult to identify broad areas to set aside. Perhaps the best way is to start with the contentious areas region by region, and get common agreement incrementally – moving from 2 per cent to 5 per cent and so on.

All this will take time, however, and much time has already been wasted (the Royal Commission’s report on the dire situation in our seas came out in 2004). Once the bill is enacted by Parliament it will take two years to produce a Marine Policy Statement.

Just 0.002 per cent of our coastal seas are fully protected. That the public has woken up to looming disaster is proven by the 100,000 signatures the Marine Conservation Society obtained in favour of Marine Reserves. Some people were even persuaded to participate in a Marinet publicity stunt in Brighton, posing for a nude photo in front of a sign reading: ‘They are Stripping Our Seas Bare’.

‘They’ certainly are. The Welsh Assembly Government is more aware of the necessity for Highly Protected Areas than the UK Government. What in the UK Marine Bill are called MCZs (Marine Conservation Zones) in Wales will be primarily Highly Protected Marine Reserves. The Welsh seem completely aware of the benefits of these ‘no-take’ areas.

Short-term thinking has been a disaster for our seas, and the EU has not been innocent in this respect, as its quotas are all short-term. The proposal: a duty on the secretary of state to establish an ecologically coherent network of Highly Protected Marine Reserves covering at least 30 per cent of UK seas out to 200 nautical miles. This long-term investment in our marine environment was the subject of a June 18 meeting attended by OSPAR Commission officials, MPs, the Crown Estate, 10 conservation societies, commercial interests, the chairman of the UK faculty of the Prince of Wales Business and Environment Programme, and others. Dr Callum Roberts and Sir John Lawton of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution spoke passionately and convincingly in favour of this proposal. They also urged imperative and urgent action. Resuscitation of our seas is too important for anything less.

Dr Haris Livas-Dawes is a well-known environmentalist whose career has spanned international relations, media and academia. She is currently involved in lobbying for a strong Marine Bill

This article first appeared in the Ecologist August 2008


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