Fury as minister delays marine protection
November 15 2011 Lewis Smith
Puffins and guillemots depend on the sea for food
The government has been accused of failing the environment after announcing delays to the creation of marine reserves.
Conservation groups responded angrily to the announcement by environment minister Richard Benyon that the internationally agreed deadline for creating marine protected areas will be missed.
They accused the government of changing the rules at the last minute on how valuable marine habitats should be identified to protect them from destruction by vested interests.
In his statement Mr Benyon said that the government wanted more evidence gathered before it made a decision on which locations, and the wildlife in them, should get priority for protection.
But conservation groups quickly pointed out that the government had, from the outset of the process of identifying where a network of marine reserves should be created, accepted there was a shortage of detailed scientific evidence of what lies beneath the waves and that suggestions should be assessed on the basis of “the best available evidence”.
The fear is that when there is a lack of evidence about a location, vested interests such as fishing, aggregates, oil & gas, and renewable energy schemes, will be allowed to exploit the area when in reality they harbour rare or valuable animal communities.
Marine environments are notoriously hard to research and scientific data on them is decades behind that of terrestrial habitats. Parts of the Thames Estuary, for instance, are hugely important to over-wintering red-throated divers but until surveys were carried out for the wind industry the feeding ground was virtually unrecognized.
Martin Harper, conservation director for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: “It is hard not to feel short-changed by Government. We have committed time, energy and money towards achieving comprehensive marine protection for example with our own work in furthering marine research.
“While wanting to wear the mantle of ‘Greenest Government Ever’ our Government seems strangely reluctant to invest in and come up with a convincing business plan to deliver the commitment for protecting our seas.”
At the Marine Conservation Society there was concern that the demand for extra research could cost millions. Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, the senior biodiversity expert at the MCS, said: “We want to know how many more millions, and how much more time will need to be spent to ensure Defra gets the evidence it is seeking.
“This is hugely frustrating, as the process has already eliminated some of the best sites for biodiversity protection because of over-riding and over-riding economic interests of the industry stakeholders in the room.”
The demand for more evidence means the first marine conservation zones, as part of the Marine and Coastal Access Act, will not be in place until at least 2013. It also means that just a fraction of those initially promised form the first tranche.
In his ministerial statement Mr Benyon said: “There are a number of gaps and limitations in the scientific evidence base supporting the MCZ recommendations. It is important that we get this right. It is vital that we have an adequate evidence base for every site if we are to create successful well-managed MCZs. An adequately robust evidence base will be essential when we come to implement management measures. Defra will therefore be commissioning significant additional work."
He added: “We are clear that looking after the wildlife and habitat in our seas is just as important as looking after those on land.”
« Return to the news index
Be the first to comment on this story using the form below