Tuesday 17 November 2009

New Marine Act to Save our Seas

This week is an historic occasion for marine conservation. It will be remembered for years to come as the time when the landmark Marine and Coastal Access Act came in to force.


For over a decade the Wildlife Trusts have been campaigning for holistic and coherent laws to better manage our activities at sea and properly protect our marine habitats and species, which have been declining for years as a result of our actions. Finally, the hard work has paid off and we have a Marine Act. http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/index.php?section=environment:marine

The seas around Sussex are home to a wealth of fantastic wildlife, however, we have put our seas under sustained pressure and our marine habitats and the wildlife that they support have suffered as a result.

At present less than 0.001% of the marine environment around Britain is fully protected from damaging activities. The Marine and Coastal Access Act allows Government to designate new Marine Conservation Zones, areas where activities and exploitation can be managed so as not to damage the environment. This network of protected zones will allow degraded habitats to recover and wildlife to once again thrive. New legislation, however, is only the beginning and we will continue to press for strengthened provisions for marine wildlife through the implementation process. The decisions made, and actions taken, over the next five years will determine the future of the UK’s seas. This is a unique opportunity and we must seize it.

If you would like to read about how our seas are now but a shadow of their former selves I suggest you read “The Unnatural History of the Sea” by professor Callum Roberts.

This is an incredible eye-opener. The history of our marine environment is one of long term damage from unsustainable activities and poor regulation. It is a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation. Nobody will restrict their use of the sea, even if it would protect dwindling fish stocks because others would always step in and exploit them instead. The statistics are daunting. There would probably be about 20 times as many fish in the North Sea, if it was not fished, and the over-fishing of the last century means that we are now landing less than 10% of the fish that were landed in 1900.

Callum Roberts’ view, supported by clear logic, is that we need to protect as much as 30% of the sea and reduce the intensity of use over much of the rest. Far from disadvantaging the fishing industry, this is probably the only action that will save it. Protected zones are massively productive, so areas around them have significantly increased fish stocks. For example one small protected area near Devon has a lobster population 8 times greater than outside, and fishers benefit from this as stocks spill out into surrounding areas.

My feeling is that the situation in Sussex is actually improving. Much of the remaining fishing industry is conducted on a more sustainable basis and the trick will now be to make sure that regulation boosts local fishing, perhaps protecting it from over-exploitation from further afield. There are even ideas that the whole of the Sussex fishery should be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. If this was done then it would mean that anyone buying local fish could be confident that they weren’t damaging the marine environment by doing so. (If it is not done then perhaps people should question whether they should really buy endangered-fish-and-chips for supper).

Implemented well, the Marine Act will not be a case of conservation versus fishing; it will be a case of conservation ensuring the survival of fishing.

And there is more to the sea than fish for the dinner plate. Taken as a whole the sea is the fundamental regulator for the functioning of the whole planet. From the weather, to nutrient cycling and the provision of oxygen for us to breathe the sea is pretty important! World wide, the expansion of “dead zones” – zones where the ecosystem has essentially collapsed – should be a concern for all of us. Sorting out our approach to our own seas is vital. But we can’t just push the problem off to somewhere else.

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