Writing for PoliticsHome, Huw Irranca-Davies urges the protection of the best remaining bits of our seas and says without decisive action now, there will be less and less of our seas to protect.
As former Minster for Marine and the Natural Environment, I have watched with keen interest the implementation of the 2009 Marine Act. Part of this historic Act allowed for the establishment of Marine Conservation Zones. MCZs will be multi-use areas managed to prevent activities that damage our marine habitats, while allowing more sustainable recreational and commercial exploits to continue, helping inform best practice and more sustainable management in our seas. The principle aim of this part of the Act was the establishment of an ‘ecologically coherent network’ of sites, ensuring that a representative portion of the variety of habitats and species that make up our vibrant and productive seas are managed sustainably.
Following an £8.8 million two and half year consultation involving the full range of public, industry and NGO stakeholders, 127 sites were proposed in November 2011. Akin to the establishment of the National Parks in the 1950s where a Conservative led Government also implemented an Act previously established under Labour, it is now up to the Coalition Government to designate these sites. While formal designation was due in summer 2012, the Government have delayed designation to gather greater scientific evidence on the proposed sites. A final three month public consultation is due in December 2012.
Yet as time drags on and despite the recommendations of the Government’s independent Science Advisory Panel and Statutory Nature Conservation there exists growing concern that the Government may invoke the absence of scientific evidence within a minority of sites as justification for a drastic cut in the overall number of MCZs designated.
Good science should always be at the heart of effective environmental policy. Where the scientific evidence for the presence of certain habitats and species simply does not exist, it is perfectly understandable that these sites should not be designated. However, the Government’s own guidance on site selection acknowledged that we still know more about the surface of the moon than we do our own seabed. It states: “Network design should be based on the best information currently available. Lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for postponing proportionate decisions on site selection.”
The science that informed me as the previous Fisheries Minister was clear – the marine environment is less productive than it used to be and some marine habitats have been damaged. The Government cannot herald the designation of a dramatically reduced number of sites, for the simple reason that this would negate the principle objective of the MCZ process; to achieve an ecologically coherent network. The majority of the stakeholder selected sites are underpinned by scientific data and should be designated.
By agonising over data points in the marine environment, we are missing the objective – to protect the best remaining bits of our seas, and recover a significant proportion of the rest. Without decisive action now there will be less and less of our seas to protect. If established now, an ecologically coherent network may allow us the opportunity to begin rebuilding our fragile seas, ensuring they become rich and productive for generations to come. I for one hope that the Government has the ambition not to squander this historic opportunity. Our seas deserve more than a token political gesture of protection at the end of this consultation, I am sure the Minister will agree.