This morning Richard Benyon made a written statement on Marine Conservation Zones. Read the statement and you might struggle to discover what it means – it means that this government and the previous government, between them, have made a massive mess of delivering the promise of the Marine and Coastal Access Act.
After setting up a very time-intensive process of stakeholder engagement to identify the best wildlife areas at sea (the previous government) this government has given the information to a bunch of expert boffins who have said that the data aren’t perfect. And so this government has decided to do some more chatting with lots of people again before moving to protect the wildlife of our seas. The first Marine Conservation Zone designations are envisaged to take place in 2013 and not expected to include any more than about 25 of the 127 put forward.
The data from the marine environment aren’t perfect. And that is because every government I have known has underinvested in monitoring in the marine environment. This is an area where NGOs can’t bale out the government and organise the studies and flood the seas with volunteers counting sea horses, porpoises and starfish – the logistics are just too difficult. If you want perfect data on wildlife go to a car park – the data are good but the wildlife is missing, but at least you can be sure that it is missing.
The English process was set up to use the best available evidence but now wildlife protection is being delayed further because the evidence available isn’t perfect (and to be fair it is far from perfect). But no-one in Defra should ever have been in any doubt that the data were a bit ropey in places – and no-one in Defra should be in any doubt that the data are ropey because Defra hasn’t invested in making them anything else . Whose side is Defra on? This is a sad day for nature conservation in England and the government just looks hopeless and pathetic. Greenest government ever?
Joan Edwards, Head of Living Seas for The Wildlife Trusts, said:
“We welcome the commitment that Defra has announced today to consult on all 127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in English Waters. However, despite international evidence for the urgent need to protect our seas, the Minister’s statement will result in further unacceptable delay.
“Stakeholders have been discussing Marine Conservation Zone recommendations for more than two years, based on Defra’s 2010 guidance to use ‘best information currently available’. But now Defra appears to be changing the level of evidence required, after stakeholders have made their recommendations. If more data is needed, it could be collected during consultation or even after MCZ designation. We are disappointed that we now face a further delay of at least 12 months when more damage to marine habitats will continue to occur.”
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Conservation Director said: “We do not understand how Government can still claim to be delivering an ecologically-coherent network, and to be a world leader on marine protected area designation, when there is so much uncertainty around. There is no clear business plan for completing either the English Marine Conservation Zone network or designating sites of European importance, and the international 2012 deadline will be missed.”
“To achieve true coherence, sites such as the Flamborough-Helgoland Front should be included in the marine conservation zone network. A network cannot be ecologically coherent if it doesn’t cover all marine wildlife.”
“It is hard not to feel short-changed by Government. We have committed time, energy and money towards achieving comprehensive marine protection for example with our own work in furthering marine research.”
“While wanting to wear the mantle of ‘Greenest Government Ever’ our Government seems strangely reluctant to invest in and come up with a convincing business plan to deliver the commitment for protecting our seas. We can, and will, continue to do all we can to support marine research and site designation, but in reality we will never get the evidence we need to support the marine protected network area unless Government steps up and provides resources to support adequate monitoring of our sealife.”
These comments are pretty mild. There is nothing to welcome in the Minister’s statement but there is a lot to condemn. This fiasco makes border controls look like a well-run regime.
The data for the marine environment will never be perfect. Why not give nature the benefit of the doubt and designate all 127 sites until the data show that they should not be designated? Why is it that wildlife should suffer for government’s lack of investment?