A coalition of conservation charities is to present a petition to Downing Street today, calling for the immediate introduction of a marine bill to protect the UK’s seas.
Some 250,000 people have signed the petition, which urges the government to include the bill in the Queen’s speech next month.
The campaign, by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), the WWF, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, has the backing of 117 MPs who have signed an early day motion calling for a marine bill.
The current laws governing the waters around the UK, which cover an area three times that of the land and are home to 44,000 species, are considered overcomplicated and costly.
Nearly 40 separate acts regulate oil drilling, fishing and extraction of materials from the seabed, while fishing legislation has seen little change since it was introduced in the 1890s.
While the industries connected with the seas require licences and permits, these are issued by a wide range of organisations.
Proposals for a marine bill, which would pull together the administration of all marine-related activities, whether industrial, commercial, recreational or conservation-based, has the backing of the big three political parties as well as environmental groups. It was first put forward in Labour’s 2005 manifesto after lobbying from conservation groups.
In March 2006, the government published the first consultation document on its proposals for the scope and content of the bill, and invited feedback.
In March this year it published a white paper, A Sea Change, which proposed eight offshore “national parks” within three years and as many as 80 highly protected sea areas.
The plans would also make it easier for developers to get permission to build offshore wind, wave and tidal schemes, and for power companies to bury carbon emissions in old oil and gas fields in the North Sea.
The licensing of marine activities such as dredging will also be overhauled, as will the organisation of fisheries.
“Protecting our seas is one of the biggest environmental challenges after climate change and the two are closely linked,” said the environment secretary, David Miliband.
“These proposals are a first for the UK and would raise planning for the management and protection of our seas to a world-leading level.”
Consultation on the white paper was completed in June. New figures released today by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showed that 82% of the 8,519 responses to the consultation supported plans for a bill.
Conservation groups have been highly critical of the length of time the government has taken to bring the bill before parliament.
Jan Brown, the senior marine policy officer at the WWF, said: “Our seas have been in decline for some time and it is imperative that the government addresses the urgency of the situation and introduces a marine bill now.
“The facts are inescapable – our seas are in crisis. We need to act and cannot afford another year of delay by the government.”
In July, a minister wrote to the Guardian in response to a comment piece which accused the government of putting the marine bill plans in “cold storage”.
Jonathan Shaw, the minister for marine, landscape and rural affairs, promised that the bill would be published “in draft” early next year.
“Far from being in ‘cold storage’, the planned marine bill remains a priority for this government,” he wrote.
“We are committed to a marine bill in this parliament and a draft bill is expected early next year.
“Because it is such a complex issue and we think that it is essential to take a strategic approach across the whole of the UK, working together with all the devolved administrations, it is vital that we get it right rather than rush such an important new vision for our seas and marine life.”
Four children representing the four organisations in the coalition will hand in the marine bill petition to Downing Street today.