Conservationists have raised fears that the Government is set to push ahead with less than a quarter of the dozens of protected areas proposed for the UK’s seas.
A total of 127 proposed “marine conservation zones” have been drawn up by four regional groups as part of efforts to develop a network of areas designed to improve the protection of the marine environment.
They range from a 2,200 square mile site offshore in the south west of UK waters which could be designated to protect seabed habitats, to around 100 acres of coastal saltmarsh, saline reedbeds and mud flats in an estuary in the North Sea.
Some 2% of the 14,500 square miles of protected seas would be made up of 65 “reference” areas, which would be afforded the highest protection with all damaging activity such as fishing banned.
The proposals have been under review by an independent scientific panel and government agencies Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee since they were announced in September, to examine the scientific evidence behind the plans.
They were then due to go to public consultation before the final list of marine conservation zones to be designated under the Marine and Coastal Access Act were announced next year.
However there are now fears that the Government will shortly announce that only 23 of the proposed zones are to go ahead, due to a lack of evidence supporting the remaining 104, putting the network proposed by wildlife groups, marine industries, leisure organisations and other interested parties at risk.
Joan Edwards, head of living seas at the Wildlife Trusts, said: “To only designate 23 marine conservation zones is equivalent to switching off the life support for our seas, the future health of which hangs on this decision.
One million stakeholders were asked to choose – they chose 127 sites.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK is the first country in Europe to create national protected areas and ensure our underwater wildlife flourishes in years to come.
“So far, initial research tells us there is good evidence for 20 to 30 sites. However, this does not mean these are the only sites that will be created. Work continues and an announcement will be made soon.”