At a most basic level, the idea of protecting areas for nature and the benefits that brings is pretty simple. Where it gets tricky is when there are competing interests in the form of human activities.
In a country like the UK, virtually no part of our land is untouched by humans. Yet we still manage to value and protect areas as nature reserves and national parks. We choose to limit what we do there for the sake of the animals and plants that live there, but ultimately too for our own well-being.
Globally, there are some species that have special levels of protection too because they are especially rare or vulnerable. It’s a no-brainer to us these days that to ‘save’ the rhino, polar bear or tiger, we need to save the habitat it lives in. Often some of our best zoos represent just the tip of an iceberg of conservation efforts in the field to do just that.
Things are by no means perfect on land. The suite of human-induced threats seems to grow every year, and we are jostling for room on a finite planet.
But sadly things in our seas are much further down most people’s agenda. As an ocean campaigner, I've been banging on about the need for marine reserves for years now and, oddly, while the world’s governments seem to agree that protecting our seas needs to happen, they have been rather underwhelming in rising to that challenge. There have been some spectacular successes, usually where one country designates a large area in its own waters, but there are many places where the whole thing is just fraught.
One is the high seas, the areas outside national control which are the marine equivalent of the Wild West. Little understood, they are increasingly the scene for large scale fishing efforts and now prospecting for minerals too. Managing and enforcing anything in the high seas is famously tricky, and so this week I'd like to give a cautious welcome to the new Global Oceans Commission which has set its sights on the high seas as something in need of attention and protection.
Europe’s shared seas are also a problem when it comes to marine protection. Decades of overfishing and competing countries have left many of our shared seas in a parlous state. That, and the vested interests still plying a trade or using these seas, have made it very difficult to enact real protection. This is despite well-meaning European legislation and a whole list of nominally protected species and habitats.
Then we get to our own inshore waters. They too need protected areas, but decades of distrust between law makers and those who use the seas make that seem like a huge ask. It really isn’t. Protecting valuable marine life matters to all of us and future generations. Protecting spawning grounds for commercially valuable species is just common sense, and giving priority access to those who do the least damage is a no-brainer.
That’s why we shouldn’t see the marine protection as an either/or decision for inshore fishing, angling, or any other use of the sea.
We need both. And we need to decide what sort of balance we should strike.
So I’m happy to be in favour of protecting areas of our seas and supporting low-impact methods of fishing. I’m not saying it will be easy to agree, but I think it’s something we simply can’t afford not to do.
If you want to add your support for protected areas in UK seas, you can let the government know your views via this online consultation.