Is the UK finally getting serious on marine protection?

Posted by Willie — 19 November 2009 at 12:04pm - Comments

As you probably know by now, marine reserves have a huge role to play in ensuring a future for our oceans, which is why we fish-huggers campaign so vehemently for them.

The scientists tell us that between 20 and 50 per cent of the seas need to be set aside as fully protected, no-take zones – off-limits to all damaging and destructive activity. That means no mineral extraction, dredging, dumping or fishing.

Getting progress on marine reserves is a bit like juggling with Slinkys  – it's one of those issues where the politics seems to agree with you, but just manages to deliver precious little. Our politicians all say the right thing when it comes to protecting areas of our seas, there are international commitments, and deadlines for creating protected areas, and there is a huge public demand for doing so. Even the fishing industry is not 'in theory' opposed to them.

So why then, are the worlds oceans still unprotected? Why is less than one measly percent of our oceans protected? In the UK we have up until now fared even worse, with just a tiny no-take zone around the island of Lundy and another in a bay on the island of Arran to our credit. (The latter of those took the dedication and hard work of a group of local community volunteers almost a generation to achieve, and just last week there were complaints in the Scottish parliament that it was still not being protected from damaging activity like scallop dredging.)

The problem, it seems, is political will. In Europe, things are complicated because of access by fishing vessels from other member states, meaning that protecting your own sea bed is a bit tricky. You basically have to get Europe to agree not to fish there. At least that's how our politicians interpret the way it has to work. We take a different view, and think that healthy fisheries can and must only exist in healthy ecosystems – so the priority should be protecting that ocean environment (which, under EU law, is down to each country).

But just last week saw a quiet milestone in the passing of the UK Marine Bill into law – this piece of legislation has long been touted as the panacea to all our troubles when it comes to protecting Britain's seas. So it has a lot to live up to. A crucial part of the Marine Bill is the creation of new 'marine conservation zones', which can range from fully-protected areas to areas with just some sorts of protection.

This is in addition to the obligation that the UK already has to protect species and areas of 'European' interest under the EU Habitats Directive. Confusing, isn't it? In fact there are almost as many names for protected areas at sea as there are people to ask. Marine parks, marine protected areas, nationally important areas, special areas of conservation etc.

The real concern here is that without the political will these will either not happen or not happen effectively. Unless there are enough areas truly are fully protected then the benefits to our oceans, their wildlife, and fish stocks will be minimal.

So we now wait with baited breath to see just what the new Marine Act will deliver. It's fair to say we have been sceptical, as there has been a real struggle to get the acknowledgement that fully protected areas at sea are even desirable from the UK government. But I am willing to be pleasantly surprised.

Meanwhile, in the other hemisphere, some undoubtedly good news on marine protection comes from the CCAMLR meeting in Hobart.

Last Tuesday the Foreign Office announced the creation of the South Orkneys Marine Protected Area. Covering a large area of the Southern Ocean in the British Antarctic Territory, it will be the world's first 'high seas' reserve - off-limits to all types of fishing and dumping.

The new MPA will be over 90,000km2 when it comes into force in May 2010. To put that in perspective, it's four times the size of Wales but just 0.4 per cent of the entire Southern Ocean.

And there is more potential good news. The FCO simultaneously announced two new consultations. The first will look into providing enhanced environmental protection for Antarctica, while the second could see the British Indian Ocean territory known as the Chagos Archipelago become one of the world's largest marine reserves.

Dr Charles Sheppard, BIOT's scientific adviser explained why:

"Very few areas of the world's oceans are in a condition remotely like their natural condition: Chagos is one of them, and if made a refuge for species and habitats it can provide a guide to many other conservation efforts around the world."

This is great news, but these are still a mere drop in the ocean against what is needed.

Take action

Watch these brilliant Stephen Appleby animations, sign up to our marine reserves petition, then forward it on to your friends!

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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