Thursday, April 11, 2013

UK sea protection plans 'floundering'

The government is letting moves to create a network of areas that protect the UK's seas and their wildlife "flounder", MPs have warned.

Ministers should not stall on creating marine conservation zones in UK waters because they are afraid of judicial review by those opposed to the project, the cross-party science and technology committee said.

Some 127 marine conservation zones have been proposed, but the environment department has consulted on designating just 31 sites without setting out how they would be implemented or managed, the MPs said.

And they warned that the government appears to have shifted the goalposts to increase the amount of scientific evidence needed to support the designation of the protected areas.

Instead of requiring the best available scientific evidence to select sites which would protect important habitats and wildlife, as the selection process neared completion, the government said it needs robust, or the best, evidence possible regardless of the feasibility of such a demand, the MPs said.

It has been more than three years since the Marine and Coastal Access Act was passed to pave the way for the creation of marine conservation zones, with strong cross-party and public support, a report by the committee said.

But as a result of delays in the designation process, sensitive environments have been further degraded and industries such as fishing have been subject to further uncertainty.

The committee called on the government to set out a clear timetable to designate the proposed tranche of marine protected areas and future zones.

There needs to be a clear commitment to a date by which the "ecologically coherent network" of marine protected areas required by the Marine and Coastal Access Act would be established in UK waters, it said.

The government should set out its reasons for not consulting on designating 51 sites which its own conservation advisers said are at high risk of further damage, and outline the action it will take to protect them, the report also demanded.

And while the MPs said they agree that socioeconomic concerns such as loss of fishing or leisure activities, including mooring yachts, should be taken into account when designating the zones, they urged the government to publish the criteria being used to select sites.

The project risks losing sight of its original vision to conserve the seas around the UK, the MPs warned.

The committee's chairman, Andrew Miller, said: "Properly managed marine conservation zones will protect marine wildlife in the UK's coastal waters and ensure the fishing industry has a sustainable long-term future.

"The government is currently letting the project flounder while sensitive environments are further degraded and the industry is subjected to further uncertainty. "The minister should not let his priorities be dictated by fear of judicial review. He must end the uncertainty and set out a clear timetable to designate the zones with a firm commitment to an end date by which the protected areas will be established."

Of the 31 sites that have been selected, he said: "It is not clear why some areas have been selected and others not. It seems the government has shifted the goalposts regarding the level of scientific evidence needed to support marine conservation zone designation. "Site selection should be based on the best available evidence. The selection process should not be stalled by an unattainable threshold for certainty."

The report also raised concerns about changes to funding for marine science, which they fear could undermine support for it. And it recommended that commercial operations should be required to share data they collect, such as seabed surveys, to help improve understanding of the UK's marine environment.

Joan Edwards, of the Wildlife Trust, said: "We have voiced our concerns for some time that government's commitment to protecting the marine environment is failing. The need for marine conservation zones is well known, yet the government is still refusing to act with the urgency required. "The science and technology select committee's report is clear that the government has no reason to delay the designation of the marine conservation zone network. "We have been calling, and shall continue to call, for a clear timetable for action. We hope this committee's report will encourage some renewed commitment to protecting our fragile seas."

Source: The Guardian

Image courtesy of Shirokazan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)