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Plymouth Sound and post-Brexit wildlife protection

Posted: Monday 5th September 2016 by HarryBarton

Jewel anemones, sponges, Plymouth Sound by Paul NaylorJewel anemones, sponges, Plymouth Sound By Paul Naylor

DWT invited south Devon MPs to join us, RSPB and Marine Biological Association for a boat trip around Plymouth Sound to see beneath the waves of this marine wildlife haven, protected by the EU Habitats Directive. DWT Chief Executive Harry Barton explains how the trip launched our work to get the natural environment higher up the post-Brexit political agenda.

Plymouth may not win top prize for architectural flair. But viewed from our small boat as it chugs stoically up the Tamar against the tide, on this sparkling summer day, it's hard not to think it magnificent. The triumphalism of Brunel’s mighty bridge next to its brash modernist counterpart; the untidy charm of a hundred wharfs and creeks, the crumbling remains of former military grandeur; and the strange and slightly unsettling juxtaposition of an eighteenth century sailing ship loomed over by the black chimney of a nuclear submarine.

And all this against a backdrop of dramatic sea cliffs, swooping gulls and the looming tors of Dartmoor.

But it's what is under the waves that is of interest to us today. Plymouth Sound is one of Devon's 19 Special Areas of Conservation. Our hosts from the Marine Biological Association describe it as a diver's 'mecca'.

The shifting mud 50 feet below us may not be pretty, but it is a veritable hotbed of biological wealth. Among its many unusual if little known inhabitants is a species of shrimp found nowhere else on Earth.

Our boat makes its way through gently rolling waves to 'cannon-ball alley'. The navy’s training needs meant that over the years an uncounted number of cannon-balls have been fired from the cliffs and now lie in untidy piles on the sea bed directly beneath us.

But nature has reclaimed them, and they are festooned with corals, sponges and a host of colourful sea life. The rocky reefs to our left sprout huge waving fronds of kelp, while the sea grass beds ahead are a good place to find both our native species of seahorse.

And now the seabed drops off to much deeper water, hosting pink sea fans and a range of deep water corals. Mackerel, flatfish, rays and occasionally cetaceans are all seen here, along with a smaller but arguably even more important inhabitant – legions of tiny plankton.

If only people could see this wonder, we can't help reflecting. But the truth is that, like all European protected sites and marine ones in particular, there is no cast-iron guarantee that they will continue enjoying the same level of protection after a Brexit. The same applies to many species, including our twenty marine species covered by European law.Cuckoo wrasse, Plymouth Sound by Paul Naylor

And we’ll do well to remember that these beautifully clean waters looked very different twenty years ago. Back then, the River Plym was regularly stained a turbid white from the run off from the china clay quarries on the edge of Dartmoor. That was before the Bathing Waters Directive came in, requiring the UK to clean up its seas and beaches.

And as I look out to sea, I wonder too what the future holds for our fishing and management of the seas beyond these protected inshore waters.

It would probably be an exaggeration to claim that Brexit presents an immediate threat to places like Plymouth Sound. But then it took a series of long, hard fights over decades to get the levels of protection to our seas, rivers and special sites to the level they are today.

With the constant pressure for built development, the drive for ever greater productivity and the current political fashion for light touch regulation, how can we be sure that Plymouth Sound will still be special in ten or twenty years?

Over the next year we have perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to make sure our environmental laws and protections are fit for the 21st century. So we’ve joined forces with a range of other environmental organisations from RSPB to the National Trust.

And we’re pushing for positive change on a number of fronts. Our campaign has four fundamental demands: -

1. We want all EU protected sites, including places like Plymouth Sound, to remain protected at their current levels, if not higher. This is particularly important for marine wildlife sites, which aren’t currently enshrined at all in UK law.

2. We want to see agri-environment schemes strengthened and new farming policy to reward farmers for delivering public good, not simply on the basis of the area of land their manage. And we want to see “perverse” subsidies that encourage unsustainable land management abolished.

3. We want to see a progressive UK fisheries policy that encourages local fishing industry to manage its fish stocks and that protects threatened species and marine habitats

4. Last but not least, we are calling for continued, strong action to tackle climate change.

As part of our campaign we have asked all our Devon MPs to sign a pledge showing their support for the natural environment. At the time of writing, Oliver Colville and Ben Bradshaw have signed the pledge - we'll be launching a webpage soon to help you ask your own MP to support the Pledge for the Environment.

The natural environment is bigger than party politics and political fashions of all types. The next two years, when Britain is expected to negotiate its deal with the EU and formulate a whole new set of policies, will be crucial.

A solid trade deal may be uppermost in the government’s mind, but we cannot allow the natural environment, and the laws and policies that protect and nurture it, to be eclipsed. Now is the time for action. Now is the time to hold our key decision-makers to account.

Look out for details on how you can get support this campaign soon!

Read HarryBarton's latest blog entries.


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