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Marine wildlife: good news but much more to do

Posted: Wednesday 16th March 2016 by HarryBarton

Devon Wildlife Trust's Chief Executive Harry Barton takes a look at the benefits and criticisms of the new designations protecting marine wildlife...

Chief Executive Harry BartonIt’s been a big week for marine wildlife. A second tranche of Marine Conservation Zones was announced on Sunday, and hot on its heels came the announcement of several possible SACs – marine areas protected by EU legislation – for the threatened harbour porpoise. Our smallest cetacean is also one of the most threatened of the nearly 30 species of whale, dolphin and other marine megafauna found in our seas. Any action to protect harbour porpoise – controlling noise and deterring the animals from approaching nets being among them – will likely benefit the other species too.

As well as the charismatic giants, forests of kelp, spectacular reefs, deep sea canyons and an eye-watering array of bizarre and colourful sea creatures stand to benefit. That’s a pretty big leap forward from where we were a year ago, and certainly ten years ago. We really should be celebrating. So why has Professor Callum Roberts dismissed the MCZs as paper parks and spokespeople from the fishing industry lambasted them as mere tokenism that achieves little more than threatening fishing communities?


The aim of these designations is to protect wildlife, not to stop fishing

It’s easy to be cynical about an inevitably imperfect set of measures, peppered with political compromise, that attempts to deal with complex, long term challenges. I don’t agree with either Callum Roberts or the fishing industry, but both of them raise some important points that deserve attention.

MCZs and SACs are there to protect wildlife – in the case of MCZs mostly that found on the sea floor – not to stop fishing. Some of these new protected areas are largely untouched by commercial activities in any case, and not a lot will change. In others, some particularly destructive activities like scallop dredging will (hopefully) be stopped – as has happened in Torbay MCZ, where scallop-dredgers are now excluded from areas of sea-grass beds. Many fishing activities, especially static fishing, will be largely unaffected. But areas with less pressure of all sorts tend to benefit the recovery of fish populations. Is that such a bad thing in our heavily used seas?

Whatever angle you come from on fishing, most people would agree that in practice conservation is rarely successful if the user groups aren’t engaged. All of the sites proposed were agreed through the Finding Sanctuary process set up five years ago. Fishing representatives, aggregate extraction industry, leisure interests and port authorities were all involved as well as wildlife groups. All these sites were proposed to government precisely because these groups felt they could be delivered and were not overly controversial. So the fishing industry should not be arguing that they were excluded – they weren’t. The two new MCZs in Devon are seldom visited by large fishing vessels in any case, and it’s easy to see why – hugging some of the most rugged and wave-battered parts of our dramatic coastline, they are littered with shipwrecks.

This is also a reminder that marine users are many and diverse. And important though fishing is, coastal tourism, leisure, renewable energy, marine transport and aggregate extraction are all significantly bigger contributors whether you are looking at numbers of jobs or contribution to the economy. And we would be foolish to forget the evidence published by University of Exeter two years ago that showed the critical role a high quality marine environment plays in our well-being. The decision as to which areas are protected should reflect all these interests, not just one group.

Will these sites be properly protected? That’s crucial of course, and Callum Roberts is quite right to point out that the lack of management protocols and enforcement in some areas is a real concern that absolutely must be addressed. New technological developments like VMS (which means that the movements of all shipping vessels can be traced) should make this more straightforward in future. But in times of persistent cuts in the public sector it will be down to all responsible users of the seas – not just statutory agencies – to make sure people play by the rules. None of us have the luxury of saying it was somebody else’s job to do the policing.

Our seas face a whole heap of challenges. In the last few days we heard about the threats to whales and dolphins from PCBs, which have persisted in the marine environment for decades. The recent storms have washed up thousands of tonnes of rubbish on our beaches, threatening wildlife and beach users. Two years ago tens of thousands of sea birds were killed by the dumping of PIBs. Yes it’s true that MCZs can’t tackle all of these threats – no one single measure possibly could. But identifying some areas that are special for wildlife and that will face stringent protection is a good start. Not being able to address everything is not a reason for doing nothing.


There’s much more to do for marine wildlife

That is not to say that the job is anywhere near done of course. More than half of the MCZs originally proposed remain unprotected. Many of them do not yet have the all proper management and controls in place. And even with a full suite of properly managed and protected MCZs and marine SACs in place, issues of marine pollution, destructive fishing and other challenges will remain. This is a long road, and we are still much closer to the start than the destination. Those of us who care about the marine heritage will need to keep up pressure on government at all levels to push forward. Politicians often claim they receive few letters from people about the state of the seas. So one thing we can all do is respond to the recently opened consultation on the harbour porpoise SACs and give them our support.

It’s easy to find fault with imperfect attempts to resolve intractable, long term problems. But history is seldom kind to cynics, nay-sayers, and those who claimed they knew about a problem but resisted any attempts to tackle it. The Clean Air Acts of the 1950s didn’t bring an end to air pollution, but which of us really wants to return to the days of the infamous London smogs? It’s up to all of us to make Marine Conservation Zones and SACs work and protect our seas for ourselves and for future generations. We have some fantastic marine assets around south west England. Let’s keep them that way.

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