Marine conservation zones scaled back

2nd February 2015

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Dawn Rodgers

Conservation charities have slammed government plans to delay designating 14 offshore sites for conservation.

In 2011, Defra’s consulted on proposals to make up to 127 sites marine conservation zones (MCZs). Twenty-seven sites were given MCZ status in 2013 in the first tranche of designations. On Friday, the environment department published for consultation plans for a second tranche, which lists a further 23 MCZs rather than the 37 sites originally proposed.

Defra’s consultation reveals several reasons for removing 14 sites from consideration. Four are described as “locally contentious”, and Defra claims their designation would result in significant management implications for local sea users, particularly mooring and anchoring restrictions.

Five sites off the coast of Wales have been held back pending a decision by the government in Westminster on further devolution of powers to the Welsh government. An independent commission set up to review what extra powers Wales should receive recommended that the country’s offshore waters should become the responsibility of the administration in Cardiff.

Four sites in the south west and the Irish Sea have also been removed from the original list. Defra says this is to enable further work between the authorities and the fishing industry, who face significant impacts if the sites became MCZs.

The consultation also explains that a site north of the island of Lundy in Devon has been dropped after an alternative site nearby was selected as an MCZ, while more research is being carried out at site off the north-east coast.

Defra aims to designate the second tranche of sites within 12 months and will then consider sites to be included in the third and final tranches. Sites that have been removed from the second tranche could go forward under the third, it says.

But campaigners are furious at the slow pace of progress. The sites off the Irish coast include coral reefs and are home to at least 30 species of shark and a dozen species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, yet are among the most heavily overexploited in the UK, according to the Wildlife Trusts.

“By postponing action to protect these areas yet again, the government is leaving the Irish Sea open to an environmental disaster,” argued Emily Baxter, marine conservation officer at the North West Wildlife Trust.

“Supporting sustainable fisheries, instead of encouraging overfishing and habitat destruction, would increase fish landings, generate more income and create more jobs in the sector. Decision-makers need to think of sustainable fisheries as an opportunity for job creation and increasing the value of fisheries rather than an environmental principal that comes at a price to the industry,” she said.

Designation does not automatically mean that economic and recreational activities in the site will be restricted. Regulators will review each site separately and put management plans in place for those activities that damage the conservation aims of the area, according to Defra. Last year, MPs on the environmental audit committee criticised the government for not having published management plans for the first tranche of MCZs.

But Defra is working on these as part of a complex, wider project on management of European protected zones, according to Joan Edwards, head of living seas at the Wildlife Trusts.

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