Along the coast and under the sea - the outlook for marine protection

ADDENDUM Draft Marine Bill 2008

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s on the south coast, looking across the Solent to Cowes, and over Southampton Water to Fawley oil refinery. I dived off wooden breakwaters, dodged floating “jobbies” from sewage outfalls, cleaned beach tar off with eucalyptus oil; and cursed the wake from cross-channel ferries as it scooped up sandals and towels. We lived out our summers on the beach, taking picnics of cold potatoes, drenched in salad cream and sealed in a screw top jar. My mum would show us where the horned poppy, seakale and sea holly grew in the shingle. In my teens, sailing would open up the Solent’s many harbours and beaches to me, and a naughty pleasure on long summer evenings was to rush home from school and sail the five miles over to Cowes for a drink at the Folly Inn.

These childhood memories were strongly revived when I read Richard Girling’s account of our recent coastal history, the many different aspects of our relationship with the sea and its coastline (1). It put into context the changes that have happened since. The tar and faeces in the Solent have gone, as has the speeding of ferries. So too though has the last remnant of natural coastline where I lived, lost to a linking up of the concreted promenade and the draining of the salty marsh behind the shingle ridge.

Much to my astonishment, I have since found out that this stretch of coast was designated a SSSI in 1993, years after that damage was done (2). It seems a disparity – a dinghy strewn, beach hut lined, concrete promenaded shingle coast being prized for its littoral sediment and earth heritage. The condition report for the SSSI shows the tension between coastal amenity and the features of the designation. Thus the fossils of birds, sharks teeth and a variety of early fish on one stretch of the coast had disappeared under the massive shingle recharge that the local council thought necessary for the beach to retain its tourist appeal. Dredged up from the gravely sand of the undersea quarries of the outer Solent and dumped on to the beach, this shingle hung on to its greyish blue pallor for more years than people had hoped for. Only now is it regaining its characteristic straw/brown colour, plus a vegetation cover that is beginning to catch up with the lusher maritime garden of neighbouring stretches, these perhaps having benefited in places from a top dressing of my mother’s ashes.

Even more incongruous is the wetland National Nature Reserve (NNR) perched on this coast, its frozen open water the scene of a mass outbreak of ice skating in that desperately cold winter of the early sixties when the sea itself froze. Once the estuary of the River Meon, a sea wall constructed in 1611 unlinked the estuary from the sea, and the one-way tidal flaps under a road bridge installed in the thirties maintain it as a fresh water marsh, when it had once been a tidal passage inland to an Elizabethan Titchfield, its salt marshes then experiencing the hydrographic regime of the Solent, unique in Britain and Europe, of four tides each day.

Birdlife is pragmatically immune to our manipulation of coastal land over the centuries for agricultural benefit, and so the value of this highly modified wetland landscape, so out of spirit with the natural estuaries and salt marshes that characterize the Solent area, was recognised in its designation as a SSSI in 1959 (3). However, the tinkering to create a massive wetland bird table accelerated when it came into public ownership, with extensive scrapes created in the mid seventies where the water levels are controlled to provide “optimum conditions at particular times of the year” (4). Nesting platforms were built in the main body of water by lobbing in bricks and rubble, and which remain unsightly to this day. I’m just waiting for some water buffalo to be thrown onto the grazing marsh and fen meadows around the scrapes – or maybe it will be wild horses in some sort of mirror-image of the Camargue in southern France (the Camargue’s natural freshwater marsh was deliberately turned salty) - because they’ve pretty much exhausted all the usual bizarre interventions.

In spite of my last name, I wasn’t much into what happened under the sea when growing up. The Solent in the shallows is murky at the best of times and so spotting flatfish on the sea bed was a hard task. Cuttlefish bones would wash up, and the odd hermit crab would lose its way, and so the most exciting coastal life after the noisy gulls would be winkles, the minnows in low tide pools and the bladder wrack seaweed growing on groynes. What I did not know was that there was a fascinating and rich undersea topography and wildlife that was even more deserving of protection than the terrestrial designations of the coast. Except that there is no great protection for marine wild nature in UK waters.

The case for marine protection of the Overfalls

Gravel extraction has long been a feature of the outer, eastern Solent, and it was the application in 1999 by Hanson Aggregates Marine Ltd for a licence to dredge banks within that area that exposes this lack of protection (5). Hanson wanted to dredge up marine sand and gravel in an area called the Overfalls, a chain of offshore banks lying east of the Isle of Wight and covering an area of about 6 square miles. It gets its name from a series of underwater north-south ridges with snaking crest lines, made up of immobile relic sand and gravel deposits. Between the ridges are sand dunes and areas of sandy gravel over which the ridges create a dynamic area of turbulence and mixing as they interrupt the strong tidal flows (6).

A variety of fish species, some on a seasonal basis, are attracted to the Overfalls habitats, including blonde rays, bass, turbot and brill. The concentration of these species probably reflects both the nature of the habitats present but also the concentration of available prey species. The presence of sand eels in the sand dunes of the Overfall’s is one such prey, and there are also polychaete worms, shrimps and prawns that will be preyed upon (7).

Blonde rays, large ‘trophy’ bass and flatfish species at the Overfalls are highly valued by local recreational sea anglers, although much of their catch is returned to the sea. It was these local anglers who in 2003, while Government was still considering the license application, first raised an objection to the dredging. They feared that dredging could permanently damage the Overfalls and destroy the ability of the site to support the species and quantities of fish for which it is renowned (the potential damaging effects of shingle dredging are reviewed in (8)). Forming an Action Group with others, they met with Hanson in 2004, who said it would consider excluding the Overfalls from its application when it had identified an alternative area in the block covered by the license application that would not affect the Overfalls. Hanson realized though that their voluntary action would not prevent other aggregate companies applying for a license to dredge the Overfalls. Thus before they would eschew dredging there, they wanted an assurance that a license would not be granted to their competitors (5).

While you could argue that Government could just go on refusing a dredging licence for the Overfalls, which they initially did for the Hanson application, its an unsatisfactory approach to marine protection, and hence why the Overfalls has become a case study in understanding how that protection can be provided (5). There has also been an extensive local stakeholder process to seek consensus over how best to plan and manage the diverse range of activities and objectives in the Overfalls area (9).

On protection, a Sea Fisheries Committee (SFC) could theoretically establish a Byelaw to protect stocks of specific species (i.e. bass or blonde ray) within the 6-mile limit (10). However, the Overfalls site straddles two SFCs areas (Southern and Sussex & District) and it is both inside and outside the 6-mile limit. Thus SFC enforcement would be complicated by this and is limited by its location straddling the 6-mile limit. A Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive can be designated for ’sandbanks which are slightly covered by seawater at all times’. Although some of the banks rise to depths of less than 20 metres, much of the site is deeper than this which excludes designating the Overfalls as a SAC (5). Moreover, marine SACs are only ‘protected’ for the species or habitat which is stated as the ‘primary’ designating feature for the site and thus cannot be assumed to offer adequate protection to our nationally important marine biodiversity, such as the blonde rays. Looking to non-statutory measures, ‘Sublittoral sands and gravels’ is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitat. However, in practice BAP status affords little or no protection to marine habitats and wildlife (5, 8).

As if to confirm the inadequate marine protection available from SAC designation, Defra recently consulted on a draft fishing order under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 that will ban the damaging fishing methods of scallop dredging and bottom trawling in the marine area of the Fal and Helford SAC. This measure is needed to protect some exceptional marine life on the sandbanks and in the maerl bed communities in Falmouth Bay (maerl is the collective term for several species of calcified red seaweed) as well as scallop stocks (11). A current voluntary agreement exists that was negotiated between local fishermen and the Cornwall SFC in 2006 and updated in March 2007. This closes the SAC to all scallop dredging in the months of January to October and allows local vessels to fish for 15 days a month each in November and December, but only in a strictly defined area that amounts to 28% of the outer SAC. However, there must still be doubts at the efficacy of this ban which, coupled with the current scientific advice that this is not sufficient to ensure that those habitats are undamaged, has led Defra to consult on the order for a complete ban.

The fact that there are no current conservation or marine management measures worth their salt in conserving the interest of sites such as the Overfalls or the Fal and Helford SAC leads most observers to pin their hopes on new measures in a Marine Bill that Government have been developing over the last few years (see my consultation response A Sea of Change - a response to the Marine Bill White Paper). As I have noted before, the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) marine campaign has called for the bill to set up a network of Nationally Important Marine Sites (NIMS) for marine ecosystem recovery, and that includes a suite of Highly Protected Marine Reserves (HPMRs) within which any damaging and/or harmful activities (notably extractive activities) are excluded (see the Addendum to No-take zones – a maritime rewidling).

WCL in its case study report for the Overfalls recommends a multi-use NIMS in which certain activities like dredging are prohibited while others are unrestricted. The NIM may also include a smaller HPMR within the NIMS boundary, offering the full protection of a no-take zone (NTZ) to a proportion of the area of the Overfalls, but allowing activities less damaging than dredging, such as commercial or recreational angling, anchoring or diving, to continue outside of the HPMR (5). This proposal has the merit of keeping both the conservationists and the anglers happy, and would meet Hanson’s requirement that no other dredger would get access to the Overfalls.

Fishing industry mistrusts marine protection

In the main, marine protected areas (MPAs) such as the NIMs and NTZs are consistently reviled by the fishing industry. At a first UK conference on MPAs in Scarborough last October, Barrie Deas of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations bluntly stated that the benefits from MPAs were unknown, unproven and were probably only achievable in places like the tropics. This was in spite of the fact that a little while before, the opening speaker, Prof Steve Gaines, University of California, had comprehensively demonstrated the science of MPAs and their benefits, and had shown data that such benefits were independent of whether the reserves were in temperate or tropical habitats and, if anything, were slightly greater in temperate reserves (the conference program, presentations and report can be downloaded at (12)). In addition, Natural England took the opportunity of the conference week to release the latest monitoring results from Lundy MNR, where the first statutory NTZ was set up five years ago. Amongst evidence of success in rewilding, lobsters there are getting bigger, there are more of them and they are venturing beyond the NTZ in a classic example of spillover (13).

Disappointingly, the conference report itself makes no mention of an excellent presentation on MPAs and NTZs/HPMRs by Mary Lewis of the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) (14). She demonstrated that the existing network of designated sites around the Welsh coast, such as the SACs and SPAs that cover 30% of Welsh territorial seas, is inadequately protected, unrepresentative of the maritime area, and lacks ecological coherence (for an explanation of the latter, see (15)). Her project working for CCW is to formulate ecological criteria for HPMRs, and a process for identifying potential HPMRs in Welsh waters that includes stakeholder involvement.

In devising her stakeholder process, Mary should perhaps read a recent journal article that gives an account of the views about NTZs of fishing industry representatives in south-west England (14). Of those questioned, only 23% thought such MPAs were the way forward. So much else of the account shows an industry that is in desperate need of unbiased information. At root also is a serious need for them to understand that marine conservation is not just about conservation objectives for fisheries (their livelihood) but as importantly conservation objectives for marine biodiversity. Thus they should not deny the right of an NTZ to exist just for its own sake, for the sake of its wild nature and not just for the sake of replenishing their livelihood.

The industry holds the views of the beleaguered: they believe that the spillover benefits from NTZs will not compensate them for being banned from catch in the NTZ, and they are right that there is unlikely to be any financial compensation; they think the benefits to spawning grounds could be achieved instead through partial/seasonal closure; and closure anyway will just displace fishing elsewhere so that it cancels out any benefit. These are understandable if misguided, but then there is an additional set of views that are just plain bizarre. That fishermen are an integral part of the ecosystem, and that bottom trawling is necessary to “avoid the stagnation of fishing grounds” by becoming “infested by ‘vermin’ like starfish and anemones”. Thus fishermen are “like the farmers of the sea in that they turn the ground over, thin the stocks and help maintain productivity”.

In similar vein, the damage that fishermen do is regarded by them as merely modifying the habitat of the sea bed so that it supports different communities. The analogy was given with modified, terrestrial habitats such as meadow, thus again viewing their effects on maritime areas in the same light as the effects of farm management. Strange then, that the report goes on to say that many fishing industry representatives feel a sense of proprietorship over the seas and are very resistant to the terrestrial protected areas approach and its conservation objectives being extended into the marine environment. Don’t they know that the terrestrial protected areas approach is just farming anyway, albeit that its conservation grazing is just a synthetic form of farming? If only it were the case that we had the equivalent of NTZs, the Zone 5 of Permaculture, in our approach to terrestrial protected areas.

With this range of views in the SW fishing industry, it seems appropriate that Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) are heavily backing Finding Sanctuary, a regional stakeholder-led partnership project in south-west England, to design an MPA network that provides sites of sufficient size and spacing for healthy marine ecosystems. Project officers are working with local industries, fishermen and wildlife groups to map areas of economic activity and of ecological importance and to begin to develop proposals for a network (17).

Damaging the sea bed

There is no denying the damage that is being done by fishing, and it is hard to think that it could be otherwise given the methods involved. Common sense suggests that dragging tons of metal across fragile seabed habitats and communities will lead to damage and disruption. Evidence comes all the while, such as the thousands of starfish that were washed up in early March on the stretch of coast between Pegwell Bay and Sandwich in Kent (18). They are believed to have been dislodged and killed by fishermen as they dredged the sea floor for mussels. At about the same time, a quarterly repeat survey of a 600m stretch of Chesil Beach in Dorset turned up hundreds of dead pink seafans - evidence of the damage being done by scallop-dredging (19).

The pink seafan is a coral found around the southwest coast of the UK, including Lyme Bay and the Lundy and Skomer MNRs. Colonies often reach around 25cm high but can reach up to 80cm. Thus it is easy to understand how devastating scallop-dredging can be to the seafan, especially since the coral only grows approximately 1cm per year. Lyme Bay consists of reefs which are a haven for these corals, as well as sponges and starfish. The reefs also support valuable seafood animals, including crab, lobster and scallops. Some forms of fishing, such as scallop-diving, cause no damage to the reefs, but Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) has been studying the reefs for 15 years and has shown that dredging for scallops is extremely destructive – hence the dead pink seafans washing up on Chesil beach. Pink seafans can take decades to develop, but dredging can destroy them in seconds.

It was DWT that eventually negotiated a voluntary agreement in 2001 with local fishermen to exclude scallop dredging from two areas of Lyme bay. Over the next three years, monitoring of the seafan in the closed areas showed a clear sign of population recovery compared to areas that remained open to scallop dredging. However, following a massive increase in scallop dredging during 2005/06 the agreement broke down and the voluntary closed areas were heavily fished. A video survey by DWT conducted in June 2006 showed once abundant reefs had been reduced to marine deserts. Both English Nature and the Wildlife Trusts pushed the Government for a statutory closure to safeguard the reef system for the future. But in August 2006 Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw decided to reject the call for the requested 60 sq mile protected area and instead accepted a voluntary proposal from fishermen for just 20% of that area (20).

As has often been shown, voluntary agreements, however well meant, are worthless in the face of economic pressure. In addition, DWT considered the new agreement to be flawed as it was based on major misconceptions. Thus they, along with Natural England, called upon DEFRA again to introduce an Order to stop the damaging activity. Defra consulted late last year on three options for protecting the Bay’s marine wildlife, one of which would seek to give statutory protection to the whole of the Lyme Bay Reefs, an area of 60 square miles but less than 10% overall of Lyme Bay (21). The results of the consultation were published last month, and 73% of respondents were in favour of that 60sq mile exclusion zone in Lyme Bay – protecting the full area of reefs from damaging scallop-dredging (22).

The result begs the question of how this protection of Lyme Bay reefs is to be brought about. Seemingly, in the nick of time, Government has just given us some of the answers in a Draft Marine Bill published a few days ago as part of this session’s legislative process (23). The Bill is wide-ranging in that it covers marine spatial planning, licensing activities in the marine area, managing marine fisheries and new rights of access to coastal land, as well as marine conservation. But in its proposals for a network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) in which a range of activities can be excluded, I think we may at last have the basis for marine protection for its own sake. Defra is developing more detailed guidance on how the nature conservation provisions in the draft Bill will be implemented, especially on how MCZs are to be selected and designated, and how the conservation objectives for MCZs are to be achieved. Along with others, I await this guidance before responding to the consultation on the Bill, which is open to until 26 June this year, and which I will return to later (24).

The expectation is that the Bill will be passed and have Royal Assent by the summer of 2009. In the meantime, the more enlightened amongst the fishing industry must have realised that they have been living on borrowed time in their exploitation of what is in effect a commonweal amongst all species, our maritime area. Thus the public expression and will for marine protection, as evidenced by the potential of this Marine Bill, will be weighed against the self-interest of individual fishermen who cling to their belief that they have an inalienable right to fish anywhere at whatever cost to the marine environment.

Mark Fisher 19 April 2008

ADDENDUM Draft Marine Bill 2008

A draft marine bill was issued on 3 April 2008 for consultation. I chose not to comment on that draft while I was writing this article as DEFRA announced shortly after its release that they would be issuing further guidance notes to the Bill. These would cover Part 4 of the draft Marine Bill, and would explain how it was intended that the powers and duties contained in the Bill were to be used in order to designate and protect Marine Conservation Zones. The guidance notes were not released by DEFRA until 28 May, 2008. I suspect many people delayed, as I did, their consultation response to the draft Bill until those guidance notes arrived.

My consultation response can be download here.

(1) Sea Change - Britain's coastal catastrophe, Richard Girling (2007) Eden Project Books, ISBN 978-91903919774

(2) Lee-on-The-Solent to Itchen Estuary SSSI, Natural England

(3) Titchfield Haven SSSI, Natural England

(4) Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve and Visitor Centre, Hampshire County Council

(5) A Future for our Seas – The Overfalls case study, Marine Bill Bulletin No: 6, Wildlife and Countryside Link, February 2006

(6) Overfalls Benchmarking – Physical & Biological Aspects, Chapter 4a, Multiple-use Planning and Management: The Overfalls Area. Phase 1, Centre for the Economics & Management of Aquatic Resources (CEMARE) (2006) University of Portsmouth, UK,50979,en.pdf

(7) Overfalls Benchmarking – Physical & Biological Aspects, Chapter 4b, Multiple-use Planning and Management: The Overfalls Area. Phase 1, CEMARE (2006) University of Portsmouth, UK,50980,en.pdf

(8) The Shingle Currency, understanding the marine aggregates industry and its impacts on biodiversity. The Wildlife Trusts’ South East Marine Programme 2007

(9) The Overfalls Project, CEMARE, University of Portsmouth

(10) The Overfalls Briefing Sheet v01, Multiple-use Planning and Management: The Overfalls Area, CEMARE (2006) University of Portsmouth,50890,en.pdf

(11) Consultation on measures to protect the Fal and Helford Special Area of Conservation (SAC) from the impacts of fishing with dredges and other towed gear, Defra, March 2008

(12 ) Marine Protected Areas Conference 2007, Conservation, Natural England

(13) Lundy’s lobsters are on the move, reveals Natural England, Natural England press release, 28 September 2007

(14) Highly Protected Marine Reserves: their contribution to achieving MPA targets for Wales, Mary Lewis (2007) Countryside Council for Wales

(15) Ecological Coherence of MPA Network, Meeting of the Working Group on Marine Protected Areas, Species and Habitats October 2004, Annexe 8, OSPAR Convention for the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic, OSPAR Commission

(16) Fishing industry and related perspectives on the issues raised by no-take marine protected area proposals, P.J.Jones (2008) Marine Policy in press

(17) Finding Sanctuary

(18) Thousands of dead starfish washed ashore in Kent and Sussex, Times 18 March 2008

(19) Survey turns up more destroyed pink seafans on Chesil Beach, Wildllife Trusts press news 14 March 2008

(20) Lyme Bay Reefs - A 16 year search for sustainability, Devon Wildlife Trust October 2007

(21) Consultation on measures to protect marine biodiversity interests in Lyme Bay from the impact of fishing with dredges and other towed gear, Defra September 2007

(22) Summary of responses to the Consultation on Measures to protect marine biodiversity interests in Lyme Bay from the impact of fishing with dredges and other towed gear- 7 September -21 December 2007, Defra, March 2008

(23) Draft Marine Bill April 2008, HM Government

(24) Consultation on the draft Marine Bill, Defra April 2008