Protected Areas Network Proposed for England's Degraded Seas

LONDON, UK, March 8, 2005 (ENS) - Legislation to create a network of Marine Protected Areas is the centerpiece of a new strategy for managing British coasts and seas issued today by English Nature, the government funded body that promotes conservation of England's wildlife and natural features.

The maritime strategy would shift the emphasis from coastal defence to coastal management and focus on effective marine spatial planning.

The strategy, Our Coasts and Seas - Making Space for People, Industry and Wildlife," is the result of over two years of discussions with hundreds of people who use and manage England's seas and coasts for business, recreation and conservation.

Action is required, English Nature says, because the number and diversity of plants and animals in the sea has been diminished by human activities, marine ecosystems are stressed by over-fishing and uncoordinated development, and coastal habitats that protect the land from rising sea levels are disappearing.

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The stormy Irish Sea as seen from Barmouth Beach, Gwynedd, Wales (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
Climate change is causing sea levels to rise as well as more and bigger storms. As a result, British coasts are undergoing "unprecedented changes," English Nature reports.

English Nature's Maritime Strategy Project Manager Helen Rae said, "There is little doubt that there is a need to act now, the time for reviewing issues and problems has passed.

"We now look to the Marine Bill to provide the new legislation and approaches that are now required," she said. The Marine Bill is still in the drafting stage and has not been tabled.

The first integrated assessment of the country's oceans released by the Blair government March 2 indicates that fishing and climate change are having an adverse effect on marine life.

Much of the open sea is not affected by pollution, and levels of some contaminants are starting to decrease, according to the report. But in many areas fishing, industrial activities, pollution and the invasion of non-native species seem to be having an effect.

The report finds that rising sea temperatures and climate change appear to be blame for these changes. But the extent to which these factors affect the oceans and coasts is not clear.

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Environment Minister Eliot Morley introduces the first integrated assessment of British oceans, "Status of the Seas." (Photo courtesy DEFRA)
Environment Minister Eliot Morley told reporters, "What I can say with some certainty is that we are having an adverse effect on our marine life and climate change is clearly evident in our seas."

Existing monitoring programs are inadequate to assess the status of some elements of the marine ecosystem - so a new series of indicators will be developed to provide more conclusive data," Morley said.

The government proposes developing indicators to measure the health of the marine ecosystem and a more holistic management approach. Proposals include establishment of a Marine Data and Information Partnership to create a national framework for data management, as well as a Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership to help develop a better understanding of how climate change affects the marine environment.

The English Nature strategy builds on the Maritime State of Nature report published in 2002 and relies on further studies that have shown how marine and coastal quality is still declining.

At least 20-30 percent of all marine habitats will need to have strict protection to stop all damaging commercial and recreational activities, English Nature proposes.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report published in December 2004 also called for 30 percent of UK waters to be closed to fishing.

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Fishing boats moored at Whitby Harbour, North Yorkshire (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
The call for at least 20-30 percent of each habitat to be highly protected arose from the IUCN World Parks Congress in Durban in 2003. In 2004 Australia declared 33 percent of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park closed to all extractive uses including fishing and other countries such as the United States and South Africa are working towards this figure.

The network of Marine Protected Areas is intended to contribute to the recovery and protection of the whole marine ecosystem rather than focusing specifically on individual habitats and species. English Nature sees multiple benefits in the ecosystem approach to protection. "It will allow exploited species to recover which can lead to bigger fish catches; a healthier environment that is more resilient to change; and it will afford greater protection to both common and rare species," the agency says.

In the report, English Nature explains how the sea "eats away at the base of cliffs, causing them to erode." This releases sediment that moves along the shore to nourish and sustain existing beaches.

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Turbines at the Wind Farm, Blyth Harbour, Northumberland (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
"Old and expensive to maintain sea defenses, inappropriate development and rising sea levels are squeezing out the habitats, such as saltmarshes and intertidal mudflats, that protect us from the sea and are also home to important wildlife," English Nature says, calling for more innovative management that works with coastal processes to create the space for coastal habitats and geodiversity.

Currently, there is no overview of new applications for potentially harmful activities in British waters. If applications for a windfarm, port expansion and gravel dredging were being evaluated at the same time by different regulators, there would be no assessment of their cumulative effect. Individually each may not be harmful but together there can be problems. English Nature would address this issue by "co-ordinated and effective spatial planning."

A central theme of this strategy is adaptation to change, and the need for new conservation and protection mechanisms, including new reserves, to counter over-exploitation and ongoing deterioration of the marine environment.

"In the face of sea-level rise, increasing storminess and limited resources to maintain the coastal landscape as we know it today," English Nature says, "some hard choices will be needed, on land and at sea."