No one in the United Kingdom lives more than 100 miles from the sea. It has a profound effect on all our lives, from our weather to our fish and chip suppers. Wildlife here in the West Midlands even includes species generally thought of as marine or coastal: oystercatchers, gulls and cormorants for example.
We should welcome therefore a rare piece of good (well goodish) news for nature conservation: the Government has recently announced the designation of 23 new Marine Conservation Zones. Added to the existing 27 Zones the total is now 50, meaning that 20% of England’s seas, about 8,000 square miles is theoretically protected.
Despite this we will continue to work the oceans hard. Offshore wind farms, oil rigs, illegal pollution, and factory and in-shore fishing fleets are just some of the burdens we put on marine ecosystems. Whilst we can see what happens above the surface, out of sight out of mind applies to the dazzling array of colourful and bizarre creatures which live beneath it; as rich and diverse a range of wildlife as anywhere in the world. For years conservationists have been calling for a halt to the damage done to this undersea cornucopia.
I say ‘goodish’ because designation is one thing, managing and protecting the Zones is quite another. Not only is the ecosystem invisible so are the Zones’ boundaries, you cannot put a fence round areas of the sea. Also some of the threats, such as the build-up of plastic and the increasing levels of carbon, are diffuse and therefore difficult to address. Those that are more tangible may still be very challenging. The fishing industry has long been responsible for overfishing, killing non-target species (such as dolphins) and physically damaging fishing methods (such as dredging for scallops).
As in other areas of protection agreeing regulations and constraints is in itself a difficult process. Once achieved though it is only the beginning. If there are no resources to police the regulations, and no effective sanctions to use against those who ignore and flout them, nothing will be achieved. Some marine ecologists have described the Zones as ‘paper parks’. Joan Edwards, head of Living Seas at the Wildlife Trusts, says ‘This second step towards completion of a ‘blue belt in UK seas is crucial, but there is still work to be done’.