Britian’s seas need urgent legal protection to stop the destruction of underwater habitats and preserve biodiversity, conservationists warn today.
WWF-UK says seahorses, basking sharks, turtles and corals are among the species under threat from activities such as gravel extraction, dredging, unregulated fishing and offshore recreation.
The campaign group is urging the government to introduce the marine bill it proposed earlier this year to protect the UK’s marine ecosystems. The long-promised measure would cover the seas up to 200 miles from Britain’s coasts. Separate legislation to protect Scotland’s coastal waters up to 12 miles from the shore has been promised by the Scottish Government.
A report by WWF said the bill – which would also cover inshore waters off England and Wales – would enable the creation of marine conservation zones to protect at-risk areas.
These include Lyme Bay in Devon where corals such as the protected pink sea fan are under threat from scallop-dredging.
Voluntary bans on activities such as dredging have not been successful in protecting these species, according to WWF’s Can We Have The Bill Please report.
There are 12 marine habitats listed in the latest UK Biodiversity Action Plan as priorities for protection and the report said laws to safeguard them were “essential” to halt habitat loss.
Currently, just 1 per cent of the UK’s seabed has high levels of protection, and many marine habitats are in decline.
These include eel grass meadows – home to the seahorse – which have vanished from 85 per cent of UK estuaries, according to the charity – which says the government must urgently implement controls of unregulated activities including anchoring, unlicensed dredging, commercial fishing and bottom trawling, as well as motor-boat and jet ski use to avoid destruction of underwater habitats.
A clear marine planning system for building offshore developments, such as wind and wave farms, would also make it easier to develop renewable energy resources to help cut greenhouse gas emissions, WWF said.
Jan Brown, senior marine policy officer at WWF, said: “Our seas have been in decline for some time and it is imperative the government addresses the urgency of the situation.
“The facts are inescapable – many nationally important species and habitats are at risk.
“It is imperative we have overarching marine legislation in all UK seas to prevent further deterioration and decline.
“The UK seas have the greatest potential for renewable energy in Europe, yet we do not have an efficient marine planning system to enable this resource to be used effectively and swiftly.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said it remained committed to delivering a Marine Act during the current parliament, and would publish a draft bill in the next session, probably early next year. A spokeswoman said: “No other country has attempted such a strategic approach for the complex issue of marine environmental management.”
Environmental campaigners are anxious to keep up the pressure for tougher marine protection.
In July last year, the Commons’ environmental audit committee said it was “very disappointed” the timetable for a bill had slipped, after legislation was first announced by the government in 2004.
Consultations were held last year and again this March, when ministers published a white paper which included proposals for marine planning, protection zones and improvements to fisheries management.
The SNP has promised a Scottish marine bill for waters within 12 miles of the coast. Richard Lochhead, the environment secretary, said in August: “I remain strongly committed to bringing forward dedicated legislation for Scotland’s marine environment.”