Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ director of marine conservation, awarded OBE in the New Year 2021 Honours List

The Wildlife Trusts are delighted to announce that Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ director of marine conservation, has been appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s new year honours list.

The OBE has been awarded in recognition of Joan’s outstanding contribution to marine conservation over the last 30 years and her ongoing commitment to securing better protection for our seas.

Craig Bennett, The Wildlife Trusts’ chief executive, says:

“Joan lives and breathes the sea – when she’s not working flat out to secure better protection for the beauties of the deep she’s out on her kayak watching seals. Joan is a tireless campaigner whose passion for all things marine has won hearts and minds and has made a huge and positive difference for the level of marine protection that this country now enjoys.

“While much of her work is behind the scenes, informing government and marine industry discussions, Joan has also led many successful public campaigns resulting in landmark changes for our seas. She is an utterly tenacious campaigner and everyone single one of us who loves the sea should be absolutely delighted that her outstanding achievements have been recognised.”

Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ director of marine conservation, says:

“I am humbled by this award and I’m also proud of everything that The Wildlife Trusts and our supporters have achieved to secure a brighter future for our seas.

“When I began my career in marine conservation thirty years ago there were only a tiny handful of marine protected areas. Our seas were under tremendous pressure from over-fishing, oil exploration and pollution. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals were preventing dog whelks from breeding, there was an epidemic of seal deaths in the North Sea and fish were being found covered in sores and lesions.

“We have come a long way since then, but our work is far from finished – there’s still so much more to do as pressures on the marine environment increase every day.” 

Joan began her career at the Marine Biological Association where she noticed the pressures on the marine environment while carrying out fish surveys diving in Plymouth Sound. Her work led to the designation of the UK’s first three Marine Nature Reserves and several Voluntary Marine Conservation Areas.

Joan joined Devon Wildlife Trust as Wembury marine warden in 1987 where she ran school visits to the shore and instigated a new marine centre where people could learn about the treasures of Devon’s marine life and go on a snorkel or join in rockpool safaris. In 1996 Joan returned to work early from maternity leave to support The Wildlife Trusts in dealing with the response to the Sea Empress oil spill.

In 1992 Joan was appointed by the minister to be the first ever conservation representative on the Sea Fisheries Committee and she used the opportunity to highlight the hugely damaging effects of fisheries on the seabed and the repercussions for marine wildlife. The growing recognition that the seabed needed protection led to the establishment of IFCAs in 2009 (Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities) who have a duty to protect the seabed and are responsible for fisheries up to 6 miles from the shore. She moved to work for The Wildlife Trusts’ national team permanently in 1990 after the Rosebay oil disaster on the south coast, as their first ever national officer for the marine environment.

In the early 2000s, thousands of dead dolphins and porpoises were washed up on both sides of the English Channel – the result of becoming trapped in fishing nets. Joan led a public petition – gathering the largest ever number of signatories collected by The Wildlife Trusts the old-fashioned way via postcard – and took the voices of 371,000 supporters to the European parliament in 2007. As a result, new regulations were drawn up that placed observers on fishing boats, and pair trawlers – two boats with a net stretched between them – were banned from 6 to 12 miles offshore. Each Member State has to publish figures of dolphin bycatch to this day in order to ensure the catastrophe can never happen again.

Under Joan’s leadership, The Wildlife Trusts conducted the first UK-wide basking shark survey. No one had ever followed basking sharks from their arrival in the south west and up to the Isle of Man and on to Scotland before. Joan says: “We took people out for week-long holidays to help pay for the survey. We tracked the basking sharks in Devon and Cornwall and then northwards and we found evidence of young being born.” The monitoring contributed towards decisions such as the Scottish government’s recent announcement of new Marine Protected Areas for basking sharks and minke whales. Joan adds: “It shows that you have to manage the sea as one – marine animals aren’t aware of country boundaries.”

Joan and other local divers and volunteers spent twenty years diving the reefs and surveying the spectacular underwater landscapes of Lyme Bay. There, Joan found a rare group of sunset corals  that had only been found in 3 other places in the UK along with a wealth of other marine wildlife. The divers’ efforts led to the closure of Lyme Bay reefs from harmful fishing activities in 2008. It was the first time that a large area – 60 square miles, the size of Dartmoor – was closed to all bottom trawling and scallop dredging. The area was designated a Special Area of Conservation in 2010 and is now held up as an exemplar of marine conservation. It is one the few places where it is possible to observe what the sea can do if it is allowed to recover – with, for example, young, slow-growing sea fans and Ross corals appearing within 3 years of protection on the reefs.  

When Joan started her career, less than 0.01% of UK seas were protected. By 2002, with growing realisation that most of the legislation pertaining to the sea was over 100 years old, there was an increasing impetus for real change; Joan turned the tide, leading a coalition of environmental organisations campaigning for better laws to protect the sea, starting a campaign called Petition Fish which collected 420,000 signatures. The Marine and Coastal Access Act was passed in 2009 paving the way for a blue belt of protection around the UK and, following another decade of campaigning, 91 Marine Conservation Zones were established by 2019. These zones will secure better protection for our seas and help to achieve The Wildlife Trusts’ ambition to restore 30% of land and sea by 2030.

Joan lives in Plymouth and was awarded the Christopher Cadbury Medal in 2017, an annual award that is given to an employee of The Wildlife Trusts who has shown dedication to the advancement of nature conservation within the British Isles.

Bluefin tuna

Bluefin tuna © Joe Pender

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