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In my opinion: Opportunity to protect marine heritage must not slip

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 21, 2012

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What a bitterly disappointing week the start of December was for the environment!

First, we had the official announcement that "fracking" has been given the go-ahead. Sadly, this was not the only bit of gloomy news the government had up its sleeve.

As many of you will know, the Wildlife Trusts have been campaigning for proper protection of the marine environment for decades. A central plank of this was putting in place a network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). We have worked intensively for several years with industry, fishing interests and others to select the best possible sites. This locally-led process, an inspiring example of Big Society in action, put forward 127 potential sites.

Our suspicions that the government was not overly enthusiastic about MCZs were first raised a year ago, when the process was put back 12 months and the fisheries minister talked of designating a much reduced number. Our fears have now been confirmed; no more than 31 will be put in place in 2013.

It omits at least 18 sites that were highlighted by the government's own advisors as being at high risk.

But what does it mean for Devon? The blunt answer is that a mere four of the 17 sites proposed may get designated next year. One of these, Lundy, is already a no-take zone and so we are only really looking at three new sites. None of the south Devon river estuaries has been included, and no sites at all have been included on the north Devon coast!

Why has the government taken such a half hearted approach? It has pleaded lack of evidence for some sites, and concerns about impact on commercial activities for others. The first of these is intensely frustrating, because there already is a good evidence base for many. The second is more worrying because MCZs are only intended to stop damaging activities, such as dredging or trawling along the sea bed. Should we only protect sites that aren't under threat from damage?

This is a short-sighted approach that lacks both imagination and political courage. Like so many aspects of contemporary environmental policy making, it appears to favour short term expediency over long-term sustainability.

So what will Devon Wildlife Trust be doing next?

First, we plan to make sure that all the 31 potential sites are designated next year. Secondly, we will be pulling out all the stops to gather the evidence needed to make the best possible case for designating the remaining sites. And finally, we will be pushing as hard as we can for effective protection of MCZs once they are in place.

A public consultation on MCZs has just opened via the Defra website, to which Devon Wildlife Trust will be responding. Anyone with an interest in the future of our seas should give serious thought to taking part.

There is still plenty to fight for. We mustn't let the best opportunity to protect our marine heritage in decades to slip away!

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