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UK. Time to speak up for protection for our seas

06-June-2012. The Wildlife Trusts launches campaign for marine advocates

100 years ago The Wildlife Trusts’ founder Charles Rothschild first championed the concept of a network of nature reserves on land.  The opportunity to create an equivalent network at sea is at risk unless all 127 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) recommended to Government are designated with urgency, according to The Wildlife Trusts.

When The Wildlife Trusts were founded in 1912, the aim was to seek government protection for a network of important sites for nature - a revolutionary concept at the time.  Three years was spent gathering information, looking for the 'breeding-places of scarce creatures', the 'localities of scarce plants' and areas of 'geological interest'.  By 1915 a list of 284 sites 'worthy of preservation' had been compiled - the Rothschild Reserves.  Since then vital wildlife sites on land have secured protection and are now valued by society.  Not so at sea.  

A hundred years on the first national network of potential marine protected areas has been identified: 127 Marine Conservation Zones in English and offshore Welsh waters have been recommended to the Government for protection.  All were selected through consultation with more than one million stakeholders.  The list is based on the best available evidence – as the Government itself asked for it to be.  The recommendations were made in 2011 with designation originally expected in 2012.  However, the Government has stalled designation of any sites until 2013, citing lack of evidence.  There are indications that even then only a small proportion will eventually be designated.

The Wildlife Trusts today launch a campaign to recruit ‘Friends of Marine Conservation Zones’.  The campaign is linked to a new online resource - the first of its kind - providing details of locations, species and habitats for all 127 recommended MCZs.  By creating accessible information about all 127 sites, The Wildlife Trusts hope to inspire individuals to stand up for the extraordinary marine species and habitats in English and offshore Welsh waters.

Sir David Attenborough, Vice President of The Wildlife Trusts, said:   “Charles Rothschild and his colleagues identified some of our finest wildlife sites in 1915, most of which are, or would now be, National Nature Reserves. They did so using the best available evidence at the time.  Perhaps this wouldn’t be seen as the most robust science now but it stood the test of time and if the Government had acted sooner we'd have lost far less.

“Nearly a century on, we have the first country-wide list of marine sites needing protection.  This time based on much more science - costing over £8m to draw up.  I urge the Government to designate the full list of 127 sites now, for day by day the wildlife in these sites is being destroyed and damaged.  Time is running out for us to save our fragile seas."

Simon King, President of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “We have reached a crisis point for the health of our marine environment.  We need to act now.

“The point is not to add a few more protected sites scattered randomly around our seas, nor is it simply to protect the rarest and most vulnerable of our species.  The Marine Conservation Zone network represents a joined-up way of thinking - a way of balancing a natural credit account from which we have been drawing carelessly for decades and which now is in deep and dreadful debt.

“We must grab the opportunity before us with both hands and provide our seas, and ourselves, with the comprehensive, joined-up, ecologically coherent network that we so desperately need and that the Marine and Coastal Access Act promised us.  This is our chance to leave the natural balance sheet better off than the one we inherited.”

Joan Edwards, Head of Living Seas for The Wildlife Trusts, said:  “It took more than 34 years to get protection for the sites on the 1915 list.  We must ensure the 127 recommended MCZs do not face the same fate in having to wait as long for protection.  We believe some of the recommended MCZs have already been damaged since being recommended.  Whilst the Government treads water, wildlife-rich areas in our oceans continue to suffer degradation.

“Many of us are passionate about our local wildlife hotspots on land, and vocal about protecting them.  But we don’t often see what’s living below the surface of the sea.  If we are better able to visualise our local marine life, and understand what it means to the community, we are more likely to push for its protection.

“Our new online resource provides information on each of the 127 Marine Conservation Zones recommended to Government. It outlines the special features of these precious areas, and illustrates why we simply cannot afford to lose even one of them. The Wildlife Trusts will continue to press hard for marine protection. But it’s vital the Government hears independent voices and understands that each recommended site has the support of the public.

“We need all 127 recommended sites to be designated, and soon – a full and functioning network covering the complete range of habitats and species.”

Recommended MCZs:  At the end of 2009, the UK Government passed a piece of landmark legislation, the Marine and Coastal Access Act.  This was swiftly followed, at the start of 2010, by similar legislation in Scotland - the Marine (Scotland) Act.  These pieces of legislation place a duty on the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments to dramatically boost protection by creating an ecologically coherent network of MPAs.  By 2013, the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments should designate their network of MPAs.  The 127 recommended MCZs mentioned in this release cover England and non-devolved waters.  The Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly are in the process of determining their network.  The Welsh Assembly is in the first round of consultations for its sites and the Scottish Assembly is expected to release its proposed network for consultation later this year.  The Northern Irish Assembly is currently consulting on its Marine Bill which should ensure this network extends into Northern Irish waters.