Fracking and gas energy
First, we had the official announcement that “fracking” has been given the go-ahead. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process of releasing natural gas from oil rich rocks. We don’t yet know which parts of the UK might be impacted by fracking, but the impacts could be widespread. The announcement followed hot on the heels of a little-reported decision to give the go-ahead for more gas power stations. Not the most convincing strategy for reducing our carbon emissions!
Marine Conservation Zones
Sadly, this was not the only bit of gloomy news the government had up its sleeve. As many of you will know, the Wildlife Trusts have been campaigning for proper protection of the marine environment for decades. A central plank of this was putting in place a network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), to protect the best and most threatened habitat. We have worked intensively for several years with industry, fishing interests and others to select the best possible sites. This locally-led process, an inspiring example of Big Society in action, put forward 127 potential sites.
Our suspicions that the government was not overly enthusiastic about MCZs were first raised a year ago, when the process was put back a year and the fisheries minister talked of designating a much reduced number. Despite intensive lobbying, our fears have now been confirmed; no more than 31 will be put in place in 2013. More may be designated in future, but there is no commitment to do so.
This is less than a quarter of the sites put forward. Worse, it omits at least 18 sites that were highlighted by the government’s own advisors as being at high risk. Some sites on the east coast have already been damaged in the last year. What a set back to such a forward thinking initiative!
But what does it mean for Devon? The blunt answer is that a mere four of the 17 sites proposed may get designated next year. One of these, Lundy, is already a no-take zone and so we are only really looking at three new sites. None of the south Devon river estuaries has been included, and no sites at all have been included on the north Devon coast!
Why has the government taken such a half hearted approach? It has pleaded lack of evidence for some sites, and concerns about impact on commercial activities for others. The first of these is intensely frustrating, because there already is a good evidence base for many potential MCZs. The second is more worrying because, contrary to some of the rumours that have been circulating, MCZs are only intended to stop damaging activities, such as dredging or trawling along the sea bed. Should we only protect sites that aren’t under threat from damage – and leave unprotected all those that might be?
This is a short-sighted approach that lacks both imagination and political courage. Like so many aspects of contemporary environmental policy making, it appears to favour short term expediency over long term sustainability. But there is a lot still to fight for. There are plenty of voices within government who are equally disappointed with the announcement and support our cause. So what we do next matters an awful lot.
First, we need to make sure that all the 31 potential sites are designated next year – this is certainly not a foregone conclusion, and we can expect plenty of resistance. Secondly, we will be pulling out all the stops to gather the evidence needed to make the best possible case for designating the remaining sites over the coming years. And finally, we will be pushing as hard as we can for effective protection of MCZs once they are officially in place.
A public consultation on MCZs has just opened, to which we will be responding in detail. We will put more information on our website early in the New Year to let you know how you can help us push this forward.
This is still plenty to fight for. We mustn’t let the best opportunity to protect our marine heritage in decades to slip away!
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