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Marine Biodiversity

Volume 547: debated on Thursday 5 July 2012

3. When she plans to establish a network of marine protected areas to conserve biodiversity in England’s seas. (115215)

This question would normally be answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is currently representing the United Kingdom at the International Whaling Commission.

We already have a network of 84 marine protected areas in English seas out to 12 nautical miles from the coast, and we plan to complete the set designated under the EU habitats directive this year. In addition, we are working to designate more sites under the EU birds directive and more marine conservation zones, as provided for in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, to add to the network from 2013 onwards.

I am sure the whole House will wish to send its best wishes to the right hon. Lady’s colleague at the International Whaling Commission. I bear the scars of a number of those conferences and, in particular, I hope that the Under-Secretary delivers a tough message on the outrageous South Korean decision to resume so-called scientific whaling. No such thing exists.

Marine protected areas are absolutely vital if we are to protect fish, seafood and other aspects of marine biodiversity in the seas around our coast, including around Devon. Their designation is already running two years’ late, however, and there are worrying reports that the Government intend to reduce the number from 127, which the right hon. Lady’s own independent scientific advisory group said was the minimum required, to just 30. I hope that she can dispel those concerns now. Thirty would be totally inadequate; we need the 127 that her own advisory group recommends.

I will convey the right hon. Gentleman’s encouragement to the Under-Secretary, because the negotiations are indeed tough when dealing with countries that still pursue whaling practices.

May I put the matter of marine conservation zones in context? The Under-Secretary made a statement to Parliament in November last year, making it clear that an independent scientific review had found the evidence base for the designation of those zones to be insufficiently robust. I am sure the House wants the decision to be based on evidence and led by science, so we will not be rushed into making a decision without that additional evidence. On the figures in reports, the right hon. Gentleman should take them with a pinch of salt.

I welcome the introduction of further marine conservation zones, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the intention is not to put out of business those fishermen who engage in low-impact fishing, particularly mackerel handlining on the Cape bank off the Cornish coast? Surely, in designating these zones the intention is to strike a balance and to ensure that we get things right.

I thank my hon. Friend for that observation, which underlines the point about the need to ensure that the evidence is robust and to balance the needs of all those who require access to our marine and coastal waters, but who have at heart the health and welfare of our seas. We need to ensure that the evidence base is robust.