Sea users and interest groups decide list of areas that will protect rare and threatened marine wildlife and habitats
John Vidal, environment editor The Guardian, Thursday 8 September 2011
Much of the sea around the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly, major estuaries and islets off the east coast, as well as reefs, trenches, sandbars and remote places seldom seen by humans, are included in a list of 127 sea areas that have been proposed as new nature reserves.
The zones range from a giant 5,800 sq km (2,240 sq mile) patch on the edge of British territorial waters in the western Channel to a minute 0.09 sq km speck of rock off Dorset, from the sea floor below some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world in the Channel to the muddy waters off the northern Irish coast where Dublin Bay prawn thrives.
The total area expected to be named as new nationally important marine conservation zones (MCZs) is more than 37,000 sq km-about twice the size of Wales. Nearly half the sites are off the south-west coast and in the Channel. Wales and Scotland are expected to designate other marine conservation areas later this year.
“Together they will conserve a mixture of wildlife, habitats, geology and geomorphology” said a spokeswoman for the MCZ project.
“They are being recommended not just to conserve the rare and threatened, but the range of marine wildlife - from seahorses to sunset cup corals, and from honeycomb worm reefs to estuarine rocky habitats in English waters.”
The project has conducted more than 2,500 interviews and held 155 meetings in what has been called a “people to parliament” approach to decision-making.
Conservationists today welcomed the list as one of Britain's most significant natural protection initiatives in decades, but said that the level of safeguards proposed for the nationally important sites varied from tight to potentially weak. Decisions about how the sites are managed, and what activities can or cannot take place in them, will only be made once formal designation is confirmed next year.
However, only 20 of the 127 sites are proposed to be highly protected “reference” sites where any exploitation or damage by industry will be banned. Nearly half the sites are expected to contain highly protected areas within them, while the oil and gas, wind and dredging industries will be allowed some access in some areas. Only 2% of the sites are expected to be given full protection.
In what has been described as “robust” arguments, industry objected to some areas and conservationists had to compromise to arrive at the final list. "Sites we were sorry to see dropped due to industry concerns include Flam borough-Helgoland, the north Norfolk chalk reefs and the Farne Islands," said the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), one of the many organisations that helped to determine the sites. But other landmark places proposed by ecologists were chosen, including the Needles off the Isle of Wight and the Manacles rocks off Cornwall. "Protected sites are desperately needed to protect our seas so that marine habitats and ecosystems can begin to recover from decades of degradation," said Richard Harrington of the MCS.
“Conservation for the UK's marine environment has taken a major step forward. The thousands of species of sealife and habitats that live hidden under our waters need just as much protection as those that we can see on land,” said marine minister Richard Benyon.
The unique process of allowing sea users to choose the sites rather than government took nearly two years, but is expected to avoid arguments and disputes later. Unlike proposals for forests and planning areas, which were decided by government ministers without proper consultation, the 127 sites were only recommended following long negotiations between dozens of sea users and interest groups - including the oil and gas, wind and fishing industries, eco-tourism and conservation groups, ports and shippers.“It has been challenging. Over 2,500 interviews have been conducted and 155 meetings held. Over 1 million individuals' interests have been represented, and it has enabled marine industries such as fishing, ports and offshore renewable energy to share their views alongside conservationists, landowners and recreational sea users,” said the MCZ spokeswoman.