Tide turning for marine conservation?

Sensemaking / Tide turning for marine conservation?

Can a new integrated approach to coastal developments in the UK offer better protection for sea life?

02 Sep 2011

Can a new integrated approach to coastal developments in the UK offer better protection for sea life?

Dream for a moment that you are a sea bass. Swimming around the North Sea, the water may be a little warmer and more acid than it used to be, but some things are looking up. Consumers are demanding that you be caught sustainably. High-profile ‘fish fighters’ are trying to save you from becoming ‘discard’ – trawled up only to be thrown back dead, due to the daft way the quotas work under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

“At last, the kind of strategic planning they use on land is being applied to the seas”

There’s another reason to put a grin round your gills. The people who have power over your fry, and your fry’s fry, have started to get their act together. You know the kind of strategic planning they use on land, to manage the competing interests of development, residents and the environment? Now, at last, it’s being applied to the seas. (If you are a British fish, take an extra splashy leap to celebrate the fact that the UK is ahead of most other countries on this front.)

The cause for celebration is the Marine and Coastal Access Act, passed late in 2009 and now in the first stages of implementation. The quango it created, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), will, sensibly, be a one-stop shop for planning and licensing. It will streamline what was a chaotic system, and come up with policies where often none existed, for everything from port-building, dredging and pollution, to fishing methods, and even whether a dead body can be buried at sea.

The principal benefit is that, for the first time, one body will “oversee the cumulative impacts of development”, says Lissa Batey of the Wildlife Trusts, one of a small consortium of NGOs that campaigned for ten years for the new legislation.

John Pomfret, Technical Director in AMEC’s UK environmental business, concurs: “Our experience has been that planning in different marine business sectors has been uncoordinated, and environmental protection reactive. The new system provides an opportunity for integrated planning for both development and conservation of the marine environment.”

Now, critically, the MMO promises to place more value on conservation. And its planners have been given more powers and tools than are usually granted to their profession in disciplines such as ecology and stakeholder engagement. They have already started to look at improving the CFP, with the aim even to end discard. “The management of our seas is a fascinating but complex challenge,” says Russell Gadbury of the MMO. “If it were easy, we wouldn’t exist!”

Going forward, developers should find it simpler to find out what they can and cannot do. The policies are there online. There are maps at the click of a mouse. If you want to build a port, you can make one single application, rather than seek permissions from five different organisations.

The MMO is to draw up ten Marine Plans in England, a bit like terrestrial Local Plans, and is already making headway with two: East Inshore and East Offshore. But what most excites the conservationists are the Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), which promise greater protection to the marine environment than ever before.

The champagne that greeted their inclusion in the Act, however, has gone a little flat. There is concern that MCZs won’t be created soon enough, or that they won’t be close enough together for interdependent underwater ecosystems to fully benefit. “We are also worried too few MCZs will be created and, worse, they will be ‘paper parks’, as there won’t be funding for enforcement,” says Batey. That would be like painting yellow lines on the streets but not employing any traffic wardens.

We need the zones, we need the wardens. There will be conflicts, and it won’t be pretty. But the hope is that good sense on land will translate into good health at sea. – Charlotte Sankey

AMEC is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo credit: BillPhilpot / istock. Felixstowe: where the fish come first

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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