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Pamela Singleton: The Marine Bill does not go far enough if you want to continue watching, catching or eating fish

Pamela Singleton Pamela Singleton is a veterinary surgeon and is on the Conservative Party's approved list of parliamentary candidates.  She argues that the Marine Bill needs to designate 30% of UK waters as 'highly protected marine reserves'.

The Marine and Coastal Access Bill will have its second reading in the House of Commons next week, on 23rd June. The aims of the Bill are broadly to conserve fish stocks, regulate planning of the marine environment, and to create a walkable route round the English coast. (Scotland has its own Marine Bill.)

Having a marine bill is extremely important to everyone who enjoys traditional British fish and chips (most people I know), it is important to environmentalists, and it is important to those of us who simply enjoy spotting wildlife. Did you know that you can see Bottle Nosed Dolphins from the coast in Cardigan Bay, Wales? Standing on land you can go and watch the BNDs - as they are known locally. One of the world’s largest onshore Gannet colonies is on Bempton cliffs in Yorkshire. I have seen 10,000 puffins in the air at one time in Pembrokeshire, and the fierce Great Skua in Shetland.

The British coast provides a wildlife spectacle, but it is fast disappearing.

Many seabirds have failed to breed in recent years. The causes are multifactorial though include a lack of enough sand eels, food for many spectacular seabirds. Climate change is thought to be partly responsible for the depletion of this tiny fish, but overfishing of this vital part of the food chain has also contributed. Our seabird cities could become ghost towns.

The MCA Bill is to be welcomed but it is too little too late. It has been seven years since the publication of the Government's draft marine stewardship report, meanwhile the crisis in our seas has been worsening.

In its current form the marine bill seeks to establish marine conservation zones. Great, BUT this doesn’t go nearly far enough, and there will be no single organisation accountable for the enforcement of these MCZs. This is why the House of Lords and Commons Joint committee report in to the Bill has recommended the establishment of Highly Protected Marine Reserves (HPMR). The Government has accepted this in principle but has not yet agreed to the 30% of our waters which needs to be given over to no-take marine reserves.

30% of the sea surrounding the British isles needs to be protected from fishing. The Marine Conservation Society argues that this is the necessary figure, and this view has a democratic mandate - 95% of people in a survey conducted by the University of York agreed with this principle. Stocks of most fish are now so depleted that unless we provide these areas for fish to breed and grow, there soon will be no fish left to eat. That includes us as well as the dolphins, seabirds and other creatures at the top of the food chain. Atlantic Cod is now a threatened species.

Picture 1 I have seen for myself the effectiveness of protected marine reserves. Whilst travelling in Australia and New Zealand two years ago I was lucky enough to go diving and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo reef and the Poor Knights Islands.  According to the old hands, the numbers of fish to be seen on the Great Barrier Reef is nowhere near what it used to be 40 years ago, but the marine reserves have only recently been established.

Fishermen of course are initially sceptical but are soon reaping the rewards of improved fish stocks because fish and shellfish increase in numbers in the protected areas and then move out into other areas of the ocean. We lag behind the rest of the world on this. Whilst visiting New Zealand I met the then Minister for the department of Conservation who told me about the establishment of these reserves. He expressed incredulity that the UK had not already done much more to conserve our own marine environment.

The bill also provides for setting up a Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to centralise the diverse areas of marine regulation but practically this seems to amount to little more than windowdressing.

Another important aim for the bill is to seek to provide powers for a coherent marine planning policy. This would provide a spatial framework for determining areas for development to provide renewable energy eg offshore windfarms and harnessing tidal energy. These often have competing planning needs with conservation. There will always be a trade off, deciding this holistically makes sense.

So whether you want to see fish, catch fish or simply eat them, click on Marine Reserves Now now. To anyone who can have influence on this bill, I urge you to adopt a policy commitment for 30% of UK waters to be designated as highly protected marine reserves. Please support this bill, but it needs to be strengthened.


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