Higher protection for our seas!

Linda Pitkin

Our seas are crucial, beautiful, but vulnerable. To ensure their future we need to secure the highest possible protection for them.

It’s one of those days when everything feels just right.  The coast is looking its jaw dropping best, the birds wheeling above the cliffs studded with thrift in the very peak of its pinkness, and the sun sparkling on the waves that crash gently against the rocky reefs engulfed in swirling curtains of dazzling white foam.  The azure sea stretches out in front of me in its wrinkled vastness towards a dreamy horizon. Moments like this, when the world looks beautiful beyond measure, remind me how lucky I am to live here in Devon. It’s good to be alive today.

Our coastline, and the sea that laps insistently beyond it, is indeed beautiful.  But it is not as pristine as it looks.  Beneath the waves lie the scars of centuries of heavy fishing pressure, disturbance to the sea bed from a range of activities, dumping of human waste and more recently pollution from agrochemicals and of course plastic.  And as the world warms and CO2 levels rise, even greater threats are emerging - climate change and ocean acidification, which threaten entire marine ecosystems and groups of marine creatures.  These are troubled times for our seas.

In the last few years we’ve made progress, it’s true.  More than 90 Marine Conservation Zones have been designated, 15 of these around Devon’s shores.  Stricter laws to help prevent overfishing, a ban on discards and protection for key species like the Harbour Porpoise have all helped to slow the decline in our marine environment.  But there are problems.  Many of our designated sites only protect a certain number of features on the sea floor.  They don’t provide room for enhancing the quality of marine habitat or restoring the huge amount that has been lost.  Neither do they protect the fish and other species that venture in and out of these areas.  Implementing and enforcing the rules is proving tricky too – according to the Marine Conservation Society, only 1% of marine protected areas are well managed.  Last autumn a “supertrawler” spent several days cruising up and down the English Channel scooping up hundreds of tonnes of fish a day, many of them within protected areas.  And it did this with total impunity.

Marsland

Photo credit, Dave Chamberlain

We need to do a whole lot better.  This is why the recently published report on Highly Protected Marine Areas, chaired by former government minister Richard Benyon, is so exciting.  If you can force your attention beyond the somewhat unimaginative title, this report really is a potentially ground-breaking.  It wonderfully simple idea.  We have areas of the sea where no activity of any sort that risks damaging the marine environment will be allowed.  No fishing, no dredging, no construction, no dumping.   Sea floor habitats can thrive and regenerate.  Fish populations, undisturbed by mobile fishing gear, can rebound.  The sea can breathe freely again. 

And where would these havens be?  Of the 47 potential sites mentioned in the report, 20 are off South West waters and eight off Devon’s coast.   They include Lyme Bay and Start Point in south Devon, Lundy and a large area of the Bristol channel off the north coast.  Rather than entirely new areas, they would increase the protection in part or all of existing designated sites.

But argue the sceptics, what about the local fishing industry?  Is it fair to exclude them from large areas of the sea, and won’t the fishing pressure just be displaced elsewhere?  Evidence from other countries doesn’t support this.  Data gathered from across the globe shows that inside these fully protected areas we can expect over 20% more biodiversity, 28% greater average size of organisms and over 400% greater abundance.  Sadly we don’t have much good data in the UK, but where we do the evidence is equally compelling.  After 18 months of protection in Lundy, lobsters were five times as abundant.  And after ten years of (less than complete) protection in Lyme Bay, the reserve has 52% more species and 22% more pink sea fans.  If protection had been in place for longer these differences would almost certainly be even more stark, as marine habitats can take decades or even centuries to recover fully.  These HPMAs would act as safe breeding grounds and nursery areas for fish which can then migrate to the seas around our shores – where sustainable fishing can take place.  Catches around the edges of protected areas are typically much higher than in other parts of the sea.  Compare that to the vast areas of our oceans where fisheries are in collapse.  A sustainable fishing industry needs these highly protected areas as much as anything.

We’ve become so used to the status quo that we’ve lost a sense of just how much richer our seas could be... 
red dead men's fingers

Linda Pitkin

Having properly protected marine reserves is nothing more than common sense, yet it can be hard generate a real sense of purpose and support from politicians or the public.  Calls for action to tackle threats to bees or beavers might spur hundreds of thousands of people.  Calls for action on marine wildlife typically struggle to reach a tenth of this figure.   Part of the problem is that what happens below the waves is out of sight and out of mind.  We only see the familiar and friendly looking boat, we don’t see the acres of fishing gear dragging across the sea floor beneath it, smashing through fragile habitats as it does so.  But I believe the problem goes deeper than this.  On a sparkling summer day the sea seems welcoming to most of us, but a few metres below the surface, and it can feel dark and cold and the life forms alien and frightening.  Much of our ocean is largely unexplored, and we are only just starting to learn how to form a relationship with this strange world.    

But perhaps an equally important problem is that we’ve become so used to the status quo that we’ve lost a sense of just how much richer our seas could be.  Devon marine wildlife is still amazing of course.  Undersea cliffs are carpeted with sponges and soft corals.  Sea horses and cuttlefish take shelter in eel grass beds. And huge sea creatures visit our shores each year from humpback whales through to basking sharks.  But it was once a whole lot more impressive, when the UK was surrounded by some of the most productive seas in the world. Cod were as long and wide as humans are tall.  Atlantic Bluefin Tuna used to be a common site, and populations of whales, sharks, dolphins and porpoises are all pale shadows of what they once were.  If our seas were as good as they once were or still could be, you wouldn’t need to travel half way round the world for a whale watching holiday.

It’s high time we changed our understanding of and relationship with our seas, because the years ahead are full of hazards.  As we leave the EU and negotiate deals with our trading partners, pressure mounts to reduce standards.   We still don’t know what will replace the Common Fisheries Policy as the Fisheries Bill has stalled in Westminster these last 18 months.  And as we move towards our targets for renewable energy, huge areas of our seas are being earmarked for development for offshore wind farms.  Important though these are in the battle to wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil fuels, inappropriate siting could all too easily damage fragile marine wildlife.  Highly Protected Marine Areas will be needed more than ever.

Turning away from the sea and looking landward, I can see the patchwork of woods, coastal scrub and hedges that intermingle with the intensively farmed pastures and crops.  We’ve sacrificed most of our landscape to production, but we have at least managed to make some space for nature, and the government is now listening to calls for making this small proportion a whole lot bigger.  Conservation of our seas trails decades behind what we’ve achieved on land.  If most of us could see what lies beneath the waves we’d be shocked at the scars, the trash, the emptiness.  Saving our wildlife means we have to be every bit as ambitious as we look beyond our shores to the other half of our biodiversity struggling to hang on out there in the big blue.

It's not too late to turn things around though.  As we wrestle our way out of the Covid 19 crisis – one that has its roots in our unsustainable relationship with nature - we have the chance to imagine a better future where we allow the natural environment to thrive rather than profiting short term at its expense, and ultimately our own.   Highly Protected Marine Areas are a critical part of this.  The evidence has been laid before the government.  If enough of us show we care, we might just push our politicians into doing something visionary and long term, so that our seas can recover their former richness.  This is key a moment to grasp – let’s do so! 

However just beneath the waves in Devon we have a wealth of wonderful wildlife which you would be forgiven for thinking was from a coral atoll. Undersea cliffs are carpeted with sponges and soft corals – we even have sea horses and cuttlefish which take shelter in eel grass beds. And huge sea creatures visit our shores each year from humpback whales through to basking sharks.