Marine protection "too weak" to be effective for vital habitats
July 26 2012 Lewis Smith
Paul Kay/Natural England
A network of marine reserves planned around Britain will fail to safeguard some of the most important wildlife habitats because too little of the seabed will get sufficient protection, ministers have been told.
Advice given to ministers shows more than half of the habitat areas identified as needing the highest levels of protection from fishing and other marine industries are too small to be ecologically viable, with one measuring just 40 square metres.
Ministers are now being urged to order a review of the plans for the “reference areas” within 127 proposed Marine Conservation zones (MCZs) amid fears that economic interests have been given too much prioritity over the needs of wildlife.
The reference areas are designed to offer the highest levels of protection – including banning fishing - to wildlife and marine features. While most meet the stipulation that they should be a minimum of 5km in diameter, many of the features they are intended to protect cover only tiny parts of the seabed.
The government’s advisers said in their report: "The recommendations do not achieve the principle of protection across the network.
“Many of the areas proposed for broad-scale habitats do not meet the site viability guidelines….many areas are too small. For example, in rRA9 Flamborough Head, the broad-scale habitat for intertidal coarse sediment has an extent of 0.00004KM2 [40 square metres].
“JNCC and Natural England therefore suggest a review of the current proposals is undertaken. Society should be allowed to exercise its right to manage ecosystems for wider benefit.”
The joint smallest reference area, at 0.3 sq kilometres in size, is Church Norton Spit on the South Coast near Bognor Regis. It is protected for Defolin’s lagoon snail, which is recorded in only two places in the country. Equally small is an area at Blakeney Point in Norfolk which is intended to protect seagrass.
Other habitat types that the reference areas are designed to protect include intertidal biogenic reefs, subtidal sands, coastal saltmarshes and saline reedbeds. More than 8,000 species of wildlife live in the waters around Britain.
Conservationists say the small size of the highly protected areas within the network proposed last year often reflects the reluctance of fishermen and other sea users to agree on areas where all activities will be banned – rather than the size the species in them need for survival.
The report, which stretches to more than 1,400 pages, says that the proposed network of areas chosen – were it to come into force later this year - would represent an ecologically coherent network, provided it was adequately protected.
However, Natural England advises stronger protection of 37 reserves so they are managed for recovery rather than just maintained as they are. It suggests that instead of the designation of a large number of small, highly protected reserves it would be better to designate fewer larger ones where the benefits to wildlife and advantages to fishermen from “spillover effects” from within the reserve could be demonstrated over time.
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt of the Marine Conservation Society said: “This report shows that there is solid evidence for the majority of 127 MCZs and that if we don’t designate them all we won’t achieve a network that enable us to protect the full range of habitats needed in the UK.
“Small reference areas are important and interesting for scientific research in demonstrating what our sea bed habitats should look like, or for protecting a small habitat like an eelgrass bed, but if we actually want to enable recovery of our marine ecosystems, we need large scale reference areas covering a myriad of habitats, called marine reserves."
Fishermen's groups have challenged the evidence on which many of the highly protected areas were chosen saying that many were "identified with minimal knowledge of what was located there; akin to a 'pin the tail on the donkey approach' to marine planning".
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has given fishermen assurances that fishing must be deemed to be damaging to features of a marine conservation zone for it to be subject to a ban.
Proposals for the 127 MCZs are expected to be put out to public consultation in December. The first could be in place by summer 2013.
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