Britain is on the verge of making environmental alchemy a reality. Our seas could be transformed from barren, muddy wastelands to oceans teeming with diversity by a Bill now going through the House of Lords.
But just as a blend of mounting awareness, scientific research and political will is about to bear fruit, weak legislation threatens to rob us of the opportunity.
High on the list of promises made when the Marine and Coastal Access Bill was proposed was a network of marine conservation zones in British waters. Yet, despite verbal assurances, no such network is included. Without it, we risk a dysfunctional patchwork that will do nothing to revive our coastal waters.
Nor will any areas be entirely off-limits to fishing, despite the proven benefits for conservation in increasing fish stocks. Such sanctuaries are vital, yet politicians fear inciting the wrath of the fishing lobby. Worse still, designation of the conservation zones will be decided not on environmental but on economic grounds. Helping developments such as windfarms is important, but sacrificing biodiversity for clean energy is like razing a rainforest to produce biofuel.
We’ve been here before. The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act made provision for marine nature reserves, but they could be blocked by economic objections. Only three tiny areas were created, and even there the legislation was too weak to protect the lifeforms they contained. Like a haunting echo from the past, the present Bill allows reckless damage and disturbance in a conservation zone to go unpunished.
Three decades on, politicians must make a braver choice. Without changes to the Bill, short-term interests will again prevail and the seas will continue to sicken. They are bad enough as they are, with everything from our deepwater coral reefs to our seahorse-sustaining eelgrass beds ploughed to a uniform muddy seabed. But they will get worse if we don’t act, and fish stocks may never recover.
There is more public sympathy for long-term, ecologically smart, genuinely sustainable thinking now than ever before. The state of our seas was ignored for too long. Now we know the truth of the damage that is being done and a strong Marine Bill could be the tool to fix it. Politicians must swim with the current and show that working in harmony with the environment can be economically desirable.
If this chance is not taken, this golden opportunity to transform our seas with marine conservation areas will turn to lead and sink for ever.
Frank Pope is ocean correspondent of The Times