Posted: Wednesday 23rd July 2014 by Joan
A lot has happened in the marine environment over the last couple of years to give our seabed much greater protection. A lot of this has happened behind closed doors, but I do think that a number of decisions and policies brought in over the last couple of years are a cause for celebration and optimism. For a long time, NGOs have been concerned about a failure to manage fishing activities within our European Marine Sites (Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas). This means that whilst a site might have been protected from damaging development activity, sensitive features such as sea-grass and reefs were still being damaged through commercial fishing activity such as scallop dredging and bottom trawling.
Following pressure from the NGO community, Defra have taken a revised approach to managing commercial fishing activity within these sites. This means that damaging fishing activity is now being managed within these sites for the first time. This is a huge piece of work and Defra has taken a pragmatic approach, working with stakeholders including those from the fishing industry and NGOs including The Wildlife Trusts to prioritise bringing in this management- managing the most damaging activity on the most vulnerable features first (red interactions) before moving onto managing those activities with a less, although still significant, impact. Management of these red interactions was brought in at the start of the year and has resulted in the protection of a significant proportion of the seabed from damaging activity such as scallop dredging. For example, in the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) district, over 25% of their waters are now closed to bottom towed gear to protect the seagrass and rocky reef features found here.
IFCAs are now looking at managing the ‘amber’ activities- these are interactions where the impact is less clear cut or may depend on the frequency or intensity of activity taking place (for example, potting on seagrass where the impact will depend on the number of pots in the area). IFCAs are now carrying out assessments to determine impacts and will bring in appropriate management of these activities by 2016.
Additionally, the first tranche of Marine Conservation Zones were designated at the end of 2013 and Defra and the Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies are now putting time and survey work into providing data for the next two tranches of Marine Conservation Zones.
Although progress is slower than we would have anticipated (or hoped) at the start of the process, we recognise that it is crucial that we get sites in the right place and that the resources are in place to manage the sites properly. As this designation process progresses, IFCAs and the Marine Management Organisation are putting together management plans for the first tranche of sites alongside management of activities with our European Marine Sites and we should have a complete network, with management in place by 2017.
Progress towards this network has brought about a marked change in how we manage our marine environment and has resulted in significantly increased protection to our sea bed. Although there is still a great deal to do to complete the network, we do feel that we are moving in the right direction. So despite cuts, despite the red tape challenge and a concern about the lack of ambition in Government towards the environment, in the last 12 months we have seen more done for marine conservation than at any point since our first Marine Nature Reserve designation in the 1980s. As The Wildlife Trust we have campaigned hard and consistently for this sort of action including getting the right legislation. We are now we believe seeing the fruits of our labour at last.