The UK conservation group RSPB highlighted its call for a Marine Bill in the next parliamentary programme by installing a network of cameras off the Cornish coast to show off Britain’s underwater heritage.
Our environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee was on hand to see the fishcams go live.
It was a glorious sunrise over Porthkerris in Cornwall.
The sun turned the sea the colour of liquid gold, and pink and grey clouds framed the sunbeams.
But the highly experienced divers that were putting in the underwater cameras were not moved by the beauty of the scene. They’d been working all night, checking and re-checking, to get the camera angles just right for an unprecedented day of underwater broadcasting.
At first, it was pretty quiet – more test card than X-Factor. But as the Sun warmed the sea, the fish came out and soon there was a kaleidoscope of colour – bright orange juveniles, spiny crabs, red and gold starfish, and the constant greens and browns of the slowly waving seaweed.
It is a small patch of coast with a hugely diverse slice of life.
“It’s ironic that this fantastic natural heritage is unprotected,” says Graham Madge from the RSPB.
“Half our wildlife is out there, with 18 globally endangered species; and yet we have fewer marine natural reserves than countries like Estonia.”
According to government figures, the UK’s seas cover an area three times that of the land, and 17 million of UK citizens live within seven miles (11km) of the coast.
But the regulations that govern our inland waters have grown piecemeal over hundreds of years with no one overall body responsible for their governance.
Yet the pressures – from gravel extraction, fishing and offshore windfarms – are increasing.
The government says it wants to create a new marine management organisation, responsible for planning, licensing and enforcement; conservation measures which would allow better protection of nationally important marine areas, and what ministers call a modern approach to managing fisheries, which would include managing recreational sea angling.
But despite a recent White Paper to that effect, the process appears to have hit some rough water.
Privately, ministers in Tony Blair’s administration admitted that it was difficult to agree with the Scottish Executive on how such a law should work.
The Sun climbed higher, and out came the bigger fish. Pollack and bass – fish that may be caught in the nets of local fishermen and end up anywhere, from a supper in a quayside pub to dinner in one of the increasing number of high-class restaurants Cornwall has to offer.
“There has to be a balance between the local economy and the wildlife,” says Paul Trevilcock from the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation.
“The fishing industry has been decimated in the past, and we don’t want to lose more boats. We’re as keen as anyone to see sustainable habitats – our livelihoods depend on it.”
Over the course of the day, other wildlife groups offered support to the RSPB in its push for a Marine Bill. Without a rich marine heritage, the charity points out, sea birds will suffer – and the wildlife cannot wait too much longer.