Hundreds of species of fish and precious coastal habitats around Britain are in danger, scientists and conservationists have warned, because the government has not responded properly to plans for a network of marine conservation zones around the UK. This failure, they say, could blight our seas for decades.
A government statement on the proposals is due in a few weeks’ time, but signs are that it will be muted and inadequate and will fail to save marine habitats from further devastation.
“At a stroke the government could rescue its damaged reputation on green issues, yet there is a high risk that it will squander it and the seas will continue their downward spiral for years to come,” said Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at York University.
He and other scientists have become increasingly concerned at the desperate plight of Britain’s seas.
“Fish such as skate and halibut once grew to be metres long and were common right up to the coast,” said Roberts. “Today, the skate hangs on only in a few places. Wolffish and conger eel have been depleted to the point of rarity, while angel sharks are now completely extinct in UK waters. Fan shells and oysters used to cover the seabeds around Britain, while pilchards and herring were also enormously abundant and sustained an armada of predatory birds, dolphins and whales. However, numbers have now dwindled to a scarcity that would horrify a 19th-century fisherman.”
Overfishing and pollution have played significant roles in this destruction. But the nation’s fleet of bottom-dredging trawlers is blamed most for the critical state of coastal waters. Their huge metallic claws, designed to catch scallops, also scoop up indiscriminate numbers of young fish, corals, seafans and other creatures. The trawlers also pulverise the reefs that offer protection for many species of fish and shellfish.
“They create a wasteland wherever they trawl,” said Lissa Batey of conservation alliance the Wildlife Trusts.
The 2009 Marine and Coast Access Act included mechanisms for improving seabed management and for halting the mayhem caused by dredging.
A year later, marine biologists, fishermen, scallop trawlermen, academics, divers, conservationists and nature groups undertook a major consultation exercise which, two years later, proposed a total of 127 marine protection zones for the coasts of England and Wales.
Crucially, these zones would still allow the public to use adjacent beaches and permit anglers to fish in them. This is a point Tom Hickey, policy officer for the Marine Conservation Society, is eager to stress: “These zones are aimed at precluding activities that damage the seabed, while allowing low-impact and sustainable practices to continue.”
Of the 127 zones highlighted by the consultation group, 59 were rated as being at “high risk”. These are places where beds of rare seagrass provide protection for young fish; where seahorses can still be found; where common lobsters and edible crabs still thrive in reasonable numbers; and where dolphins and porpoises still visit. But they are also all threatened with destruction in the near future.
The list was presented to the government last year. In December, the government responded by announcing that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) would assess the scientific arguments for only 31 of the 127 proposals.
The government gave no indication as to when, or if, it would look at any others on the original list of 127 zones. Among the zones that were ignored by the government were 36 that had been rated as high-risk.
This lukewarm response triggered a furious response. In April, the House of Commons science and technology select committee accused ministers of failing to understand the nature of the crisis threatening UK seas.
“The government is letting the project flounder while sensitive environments are further degraded and the fishing industry is subjected to further uncertainty,” said the committee chairman Andrew Miller.
Similarly, the Marine Conservation Society’s Jean-Luc Solandt accused the government of “stalling”, while the Wildlife Trusts said it was “bitterly disappointed” at ministers’ failure to establish the proposed network of conservation zones.
“These zones were the result of two years’ hard work and involved thousands of stakeholders,” said Batey. “Scientists, conservationists and representatives of the fishing and dredging industry all took part. Proposals for zones were put forward. Some were dropped because of industry protests; others were changed. The resulting network was a consensus, and a good one.”
Scientists were equally angry. More than 80 leading environmental academics signed an open letter to the prime minister, David Cameron, in April and accused his government of ignoring a proposal that would otherwise provide the country with a foundation for the recovery of its seas.
Another group of academics published a report which suggested that protecting the nation’s coastal waters would ensure several billion pounds’ worth of continued business from divers and anglers.