UK government progress on marine conservation isn’t making many waves

Posted by Willie — 21 November 2013 at 3:11pm - Comments
Marine Reserves
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

The government has at long last made an announcement on the first wave of marine conservation zones (MCZs) in UK waters. This is long overdue, but frankly fails to deliver. Today’s announcement to designate only 27 sites is a whopping 100 sites short of what the government’s own consultation said was necessary. So what’s going on?

If I was a cynic (it just so happens I am) I might say that this government just doesn’t care enough about this. The seas are consistently at the bottom of the to-do list, and all governing politicians are shoddily short-termist when it comes to nature. The commitments and change we need simply don’t happen in the lifetime of any one government, so, since no rewards are likely to be forthcoming, easier to delay and leave it for the next person.

That’s where we are with marine protection. This government inherited a Marine Act – an act that could, given political will, deliver for our oceans, and the life and livelihoods that depend on them.

But where is that political will? It’s easy to snipe at lack of progress from opposition. It’s easy to bemoan lack of funds and other priorities when in government. It’s clear that the status quo is what works best for the civil servants & officials, as it’s all a bit tricky you see. And if we do X then we simply threaten that Y or Z might not happen… 

In reality governments and officials are keen to tick boxes with as little effort as possible. If they can spin that out in a press release to say ‘now we have protected A GAZILLION PERCENT of England’s seas, and we can GUARANTEE it will make the dolphins smile’, then all the better. As long as people don’t ask questions that are too tricksy – like ‘What are you protecting these new sites from?’ ‘What is now not allowed?’ And ‘How exactly are you enforcing that?’ The political response, once you get past the spin or soundbite, is to shuffle uncomfortably and look at their shoes.

Whilst I am a bit of a fish-hugger, I will admit that the one thing that really annoys me about the progress and process on marine conservation has been allowed to be so polarised. In reality marine conservation and sustainable fishing must go hand in hand. We can as a country decide what we value and how we protect it. That’s as true of pods of dolphins, coral gardens, seagrass beds as it is of coastal fishing communities and sustainably-caught local seafood. That’s why Greenpeace campaigns across Europe (and elsewhere) for both.

There is some hope out there, with lots of effort and goodwill, projects like COAST up in Arran and the Lyme Bay partnership in Devon are beacons in a sea of spin and distraction. We see other areas where marine life is being increasingly viewed as a tourist attraction, prompting new ways to value it and want to protect it. Yet others where low-impact fishing methods are providing high quality and sought-after products, giving the fishers reason to think about how they protect the environment their livelihoods depend on.

But we need much more, and that need has to come from government, or it will simply be too late for some species, habitats, and coastal communities. The longer we leave it, the more we will have already lost.

That means we need to start being honest and vocal about what we value and what we expect from those in power. And it means those in power need to start understanding that nature and the public (whether they want to eat a fish or hug a fish) are legitimate stakeholders in our seas' future too.

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