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Protecting the marine environment is a challenge to our imagination

Diver Protected Scallop by Mark Lavington

Many traditional hunter-gatherer societies long recognised this reality and so respected sacred areas where hunting was not permitted and forests were not to be cleared.

One conservation campaign that is well advanced is the one that could now see 127 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) around the English coasts (a similar process is under way in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Some of these protected zones are adjacent to the coast, such as the Skerries Bank in South Devon, and others, such as the Canyons, are hundreds of miles offshore on the very edge of the continental shelf. They are hugely varied, taking in sandbanks, reefs, kelp forests, estuaries and drowned river valleys. They are intended to cover examples of all the main types of marine environment, as well as those that are particularly rare, special or important for their biological diversity.

The MCZ campaign is a major step towards giving marine wildlife the kind of protection terrestrial wildlife enjoys. But the timeline for designation has been delayed by a year for no obvious reason, and the government is only talking about designating 30 zones or thereabouts any time soon. Sadly, there are equally serious questions about the effectiveness of the protection these sites will be afforded if they are designated.

So why has the government stalled? It has cited concerns about the evidence base for some sites, although this has been known for years – marine habitats are notoriously hard to survey accurately. Perhaps it has given way to lobbying by some powerful commercial interests, or perhaps it is just that it lacks the vision and commitment to see this important initiative through. What is certain is that sites that have been recommended for designation are still being damaged or destroyed while the politicians dither. And the tragedy is that some of these sites will never recover.

Protecting the marine environment is not just an economic necessity. It is a challenge to our imagination. Are we capable of placing real value on something that we may never directly experience, but that we can agree is beautiful, rare and precious? Can we picture what the seas might have been like before we stripped out most of the larger fish and denuded so much of the seabed, rather than simply using today’s impoverished state as our reference point? And do we have the vision and the will to try and recreate that picture?

Protecting the marine environment will not stop commercial fishing and there is little persuasive evidence that it will impact on coastal economies. Even if all 127 MCZs are designated, three-quarters of the marine environment will have no protection at all. Designating sites is of course only the first step in a long process, but we need to start protecting sites now if we have any chance of turning around the decline of our marine environment in the next 50 years.

Harry Barton is Chief Executive of the Devon Wildlife Trust. To help protect our marine environment, visit:


Resurgence & Ecologist

November/December 2012

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