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Marine Conservation Zones

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies. I requested this debate on marine conservation zones so that, in the short time available, other Members may also intervene; one or two have indicated that they would like to do so. My remarks are directed at the consultation on marine conservation zones and in particular at how the proposals affect Hythe bay in my constituency.

Everyone has an interest in a sustainable fishing industry, which can support many generations for decades to come, fishermen most of all, because they require a sustainable industry for their families and themselves to work in. That applies in particular to fishermen who work in areas such as Hythe bay, which is operated by the inshore fishing fleet of boats of less than 10 metres long. They are largely family businesses, and in Hythe bay we have a number of them along the 20 miles or so of the shore, in Dungeness, Hythe and Folkestone. Not only do they employ people directly in the fishing industry—catching in the boats and at sea—but onshore businesses rely on their work as well.

The fishing businesses sell directly to restaurants and food businesses in Kent and throughout the country and to the public. Such businesses include Griggs of Hythe, which was listed among Rick Stein’s food heroes, or M. & M. Richardson of Dungeness, which was on the 2009 national short list for the BBC good food awards for food retailer of the year. Fish landed in Folkestone and sold through Folkestone Trawlers supply many restaurants, in particular Mark Sargeant’s new restaurant in Folkestone, which is popular, and selling locally caught fish is a significant part of what it offers.

Hythe bay has been fished for thousands of years, probably for as long as men have been at sea in boats. Hythe and New Romney, both cinque port towns, have been represented continuously in Parliament since the first Parliament was called in the 13th century. Fishing is not only an industry for Hythe bay, but an important part of its culture and heritage, which is why I and others throughout the constituency who do not work directly in the fishing industry take the issue incredibly seriously and are as one in support of the fishermen in their concerns.

Those concerns have been brought about by the proposals published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the consultation on the marine conservation zones and where they are to be established around the country. A particular concern is that the proposed Hythe bay marine conservation zone is to be set at a “recover”, rather than a “maintain” level. The fishermen do not have any objection to strong environmental standards to maintain the important habitat in the bay, but they think that that is being done successfully already. They would be happy with a marine conservation zone set at a level of “maintain”, but not “recover”, which suggests that there is a problem at the moment, and would prevent direct commercial fishing in that area. That applies not only to commercial fishing, but to fishing by many of the individuals who sea fish as a pastime, which is popular in Hythe bay and a source of considerable tourism to the area.

The main purpose of the marine conservative zone, as set out as part of the consultation, is to preserve the spoonworm, which lives in the sand in Hythe bay. It is very small and many of those who have fished in those waters all their lives have never seen one, but this is the habitat that Natural England is seeking to protect and was the object of its concern in the consultation on marine conservative zones. However, recent surveys commissioned by the Government show that there has been a near 100% increase in the local spoonworm population over the past decade, and that numbers in sand samples have increased from 800 per square metre to 1,400 per square metre. That suggests a conservation success story in Hythe bay: the fishermen understand that the delicate balance of creatures living in the waters is important to the fish and shellfish they catch, and it is being properly maintained.

Folkestone Trawlers showed me the equipment that the fishermen use to fish in Hythe bay, which is not heavy dredging trawlers and nets. The relatively small boats use light nets that skim across the surface. They have no interest in churning up the sea bed. The association pointed out that movement of the sea bed is perfectly natural. This area of water in the English channel was heavily defended during the first and second world wars and it is not unusual, particularly during storms at sea, for ordnance or even old mines from those wars to come up to the surface undetected because of the natural movement of the sea bed. There seems to be little evidence at the moment that disturbance of the spoonworm, which Natural England is seeking to protect, should give rise to concern.

A second concern that is incredibly important to the geography of Hythe bay, which is the coast that guards Romney marshes, is that a large area of the marshes is below sea level. They are important for sea and coastal defences. Some are maintained by major sea walls, such as that at Dungeness, but many are maintained by management of the high water mark shore, which is largely shingle. The shingle banks are moved and replenished as part of the natural work of sea defence that the Environment Agency conducts throughout the year.

It is proposed that the landward boundary of the marine conservation zone being set at the high water mark would be within the area that needs to be maintained, and is considered to be part of the one-in-200-years risk that is maintained along that part of the coast. It could mean that special licences are required for that basic work of rebuilding the shingle sea defences along that part of the coast, or even that that work could be prohibited. If so, new flood defences would be required at perhaps much greater cost to the Environment Agency or the Government or, worse, homes that are currently protected by the work may be in jeopardy. Clearly, that would not be acceptable to residents following the consultation on the marine conservative zones.

I know nothing about my hon. Friend’s constituency, the case for the spoonworm, or the shingle banks, but having taken marine conservative legislation through Parliament as the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I know that it was carefully put together. He is absolutely right that it is not obligatory to consult industries such as the fishing industry or to involve it in the management plans for the marine conservation zones. Does he agree that the Government must ensure that those industries are fully involved in the negotiation of the management plan which then underpins the marine conservation zones that he is eager to defend, as I am?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and goes to the heart of the matter. Fishermen are not against marine conservation. Their livelihood depends on its being managed successfully, but they are worried about the specific proposals for Hythe bay and their impact, and do not believe that that level of intervention is justified. They have been concerned about the consultation process and whether the industry’s views have been listened to. I was shown an e-mail exchange by the Kent Wildlife Trust, which has supported marine conservation zones as constituted. It included a telling e-mail from a former fisheries liaison officer, who said of the consultation:

“The Hythe Bay”

marine conservation zone

“was originally proposed by a staff member of the Kent Wildlife Trust…during a Regional Stakeholder Group…meeting in London. The proposal received little support from other stakeholders and was totally opposed by all fishing industry representatives (this area being of vital importance to all the fishing fleets ranging geographically from Hastings to Ramsgate).”

He continued:

“At no stage during the stakeholder-involved Balanced Seas”

marine conservation zone

“process was there support for the whole proposed Hythe Bay”

marine conservation zone

“to be ‘recover’ as opposed to ‘maintain’”.

It is equally not the case that, during the consultation process, the fishermen opposed establishing any areas of protection. The local fishermen had proposed a zone between Dover and Folkestone that is not heavily fished, which they would be happy to set aside as a conservation zone. However, that recommendation was rejected as part of the consultation process and, instead, they were asked to accept restrictions in a zone that they were seeking particularly to defend and protect, and on which their livelihoods depend.

Other information from the Kent Wildlife Trust, which is part of its recommendation on Hythe bay, is telling about the conservation of the area and the success story there. It says:

“Hythe Bay is fortunate in having been the subject of a”

long-term

“series of surveys by the Environment Agency, with samples from the 20 point stations being processed by Heriot-Watt University Institute”

of Offshore Engineering. The surveys

“found an unusually rich assemblage of species to be present in the Bay”.

To my mind, that suggests a great success story of management of that water.

I believe we must have a very robust scientific case even to think about changing the status of that water because the livelihood of an entire fishing industry—the inshore fishing fleet in Hythe bay—depends on that consultation and what happens. What must not be allowed to happen is that people’s livelihood is jeopardised on someone’s hunch that some intervention is possible, based on surveys that were conducted not in Hythe bay, but elsewhere in United Kingdom waters, and not based on a robust study of the problem in those waters. People want a robust, clear scientific argument to be the basis of any decision, and unless that scientific argument can be made, the status of the conservation zone in Hythe bay should be set at “maintain” rather than “recover”.

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. He says that Hythe bay is already a well-preserved marine environment, but have the Government’s own statutory nature conservation bodies not advised that 58 of the 127 originally proposed zones were vulnerable to immediate damage and that Hythe bay was one if action was not taken?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but I do not believe that there is any evidence to support it. The evidence from the Government’s own survey suggests that the spoonworms, which they are seeking to protect, are recovering strongly. The Kent Wildlife Trust’s submissions made it clear that it was not party to the latest survey information.

We must not gamble on the matter. If a case could be made to show that the waters in the area are causing grave concern, and that there is a real conservation risk that would impact in the near term on the biodiversity of the waters in Hythe bay, in turn on the local fish and shellfish populations, and then on local fishermen’s livelihoods, the debate would be viewed in a different way. Families are worried that the waters on which they depend will become unavailable and drive them out of business altogether, or drive them to seek new waters elsewhere along the channel coast, moving to already congested fishing areas around Rye and down the coast. They are worried that such a decision will have to be taken without a clear and robust scientific case behind it. That case does not seem to exist.

Fishermen are conscious of the fact that they fish in a special area of water and that it is of great interest because of its rich biodiversity. They are happy for it to continue to be monitored and studied, but they believe that the level should be set at “maintain” and not “recover” because the case is simply not there for a recovery plan to be put in place, and if it was, it could have devastating consequences for businesses and the fishing heritage of the coast.

I have had meetings as part of my discussions with the fishing industry with Fisherman’s Beach in Hythe, Ken Thomas and councillor Tony Hills of Lydd, who represent the fishermen from Hythe, Lydd and Dungeness, and with Folkestone Trawlers to get the views of fishermen in Folkestone, who also fish in Hythe bay. A petition has been raised, which was signed quickly by more than 1,000 residents. I presented it to Downing street with Councillor David Monk, who is the leader of Shepway district council, the local authority.

As part of our submission to the Government—I have also made a formal submission as part of the consultation on marine conservation zones—we have requested that serious consideration be given to the argument for the zone being set at “maintain” rather than “recover”. We have also asked whether the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who has responsibility for fisheries, could meet the fishermen, see the waters that they fish and the type of equipment that they use, in order to understand the local case that they are making. They tried, as part of the initial consultation, to make the case—they felt that it was not listened to—about other waters that may be more suitable, why the special nature of Hythe bay needs to be protected and maintained, and that we should not lose the important inshore fishing fleet, which has been part of the culture, heritage and the economy of the south-east Kent coast for many centuries.

I remind colleagues that permission should be sought from the Member who secures the debate and from the Minister. The Minister has indicated that he is happy for other people to speak briefly, if that will help.

Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am thankful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing extra contributions.

On marine conservation zones, people generally agree that it is important to protect our seas. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe was discussing the importance of his fishing community. My own fishing community has been part of aspects of the Greenpeace and the Fish Fight campaign about protecting diversity. However, in my constituency, there has been local uproar in Aldeburgh, Orford and surrounding areas about the potential designation of the Alde and Ore estuary. That, again, as my hon. Friend referred to, is based on flawed evidence.

There are different examples—the Alde and Ore has three or four characteristics, one of which relates to smelt. However, there has only been one sighting of smelt in eight surveys over five years, and partly that is because it is not a freshwater river. Smelt is normally found in those areas, and although local fishermen have seen it once, that was deemed to be because it was chasing its food stock. The issue of being a rocky habitat beggars belief locally. It is believed that the rocky habitat now deemed so special was ballast tossed off barges about 40 years ago—they are, literally, big circular discs. There is astonishment that that can now be treated as something special and grounds on which to curtail activity. In terms of muddy gravels, no evidence has been supplied. More work is going on in that area.

With all that is happening, the Marine Management Organisation is getting in on the act and causing quite a lot of concern for local activities—whether it is painting the lines for racing, or repairing a patch on the slipway. We were promised by DEFRA—and the Department has delivered—that some deregulation would be undertaken by the MMO, but not if the area is in a designated MCZ. Some small activities are being hampered or cost a lot of money to fulfil. I also refer to the larger one in the Stour and Orwell estuaries.

There is no doubt that my constituency—about 40% is designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty—has almost any designation that we can think of. There are Ramsar sites and special protection areas, and all those different things. The port of Felixstowe has been able to work alongside precious habitat nearby to ensure that that is preserved. At the same time, while trying to continue as a commercial port, the marine conservation zone suggested for the area throws blanket coverage over the entire estuary, which is causing great consternation among the Harwich Haven Authority and the port about future activity. At the moment, certain areas where there is special designation are protected, and that should be respected, but I am very concerned that some unintended consequences of what is notably a good policy—trying to restore and conserve parts of our seas—may cause big problems for my constituents and their businesses in future.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate and on the careful way that he presented the case for his constituency.

I want to make three brief points. First, fishermen are not the only stakeholders in this. Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) that fishermen should be more involved in the process, their views are not the only ones that the Government have to take into consideration.

Secondly, marine conservation zones work, and that is proved by the marine protection areas that have been extremely successful on the west coast of north America. There is also some evidence of the success of marine conservation zones around Arran and the Isle of Man in Europe.

Is the hon. Gentleman also aware of research commissioned by the recreational anglers? It shows that fishing interests are not always allied. Sometimes the commercial fishing sector can be in conflict with the recreational sector, and the recreational sector, in many parts of the country, brings more income in to those local communities.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct. There are also divers and other people using the seas who contribute financially to the economies of the local areas concerned.

My third and final point—I hope that the Minister will refer to this—is the fact that we have to judge marine conservation zones as a whole, not individually. The network is crucial to their success. By altering one, we perhaps diminish the potential success of the concept as a whole.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate. I should immediately apologise for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who cannot be here this afternoon. In some recompense for his absence, I make it immediately plain to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe that the Minister has offered to come and meet him, and to talk to his constituents to understand the factors in his constituency better. I hope that that goes some way towards entering into the necessary dialogue. Whether I am at liberty to extend that invitation on the Minister’s behalf to Suffolk Coastal as well, I am not sure, but knowing my hon. Friend, I am sure that he would have no problem entering discussions with the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).

Perhaps it will be sensible if I outline the purpose of marine conservation zones, as we see it. The UK has a large marine area, which is rich in marine life and natural resource. Our seas are not just places of important biological diversity; they provide us with a variety of goods and services that are important for our social, economic and environmental well-being.

The Government are committed—in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders)—to contributing to the development of an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas. However, we have been clear that we want successful, well-managed sites, created in the right places in the right way, and not only lines on maps. We have to get this right so that our seas are sustainable, productive and healthy, and to ensure that the right balance is struck between conservation and important industries.

MCZs are a new form of marine protected area provided for under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. The new MCZs are part of a wider agenda for protecting the important habitats and species in our seas. They will complement other marine protected areas —special protection areas, special areas of conservation, sites of special scientific interest and Ramsar sites—to contribute to a coherent network in our seas. About 24% of English inshore waters, out to 12 nautical miles, and more than 8% of the UK sea area are already established as marine protected areas to protect important habitats and species. In the UK, there are already 107 special areas of conservation, 107 special protection areas for birds with marine components, and 377 coastal SSSIs.

That is the overall framework in which we are working. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe is concerned, quite properly, on behalf of his constituents, about the balance that we must strike in his area between the interests of his constituents and their economic future, and the need for effective ecological support. I understand that. I am also well aware of the concerns that are being expressed in relation to the proposed site at Hythe bay and the “recover” conservation objective. An official from my Department attended a local meeting during the consultation to hear those concerns. Officials are currently reviewing the responses to the consultation, including considering evidence provided, and we will respond to the consultation in the summer.

Let me go back to the overall picture. The four regional stakeholder projects did some very good work to provide an initial list of proposals. We do not think it appropriate to designate all 127 site recommendations straight away, because of weaknesses in the evidence base for many of the sites noted by the DEFRA-appointed science advisory panel in its review of the recommendations. However, we have since committed additional resources to plugging those gaps and, in the consultation, we proposed pressing ahead with the first 31 sites that we considered suitable for designation. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will announce the timetable for future designations of MCZs later this year.

We are aware of the concerns that some people have raised about evidence standards. Adequate evidence is vital. Without it, it is impossible to define the management measures necessary and take effective conservation action. We want to see that happen quickly after designation. There will be no prospect of securing agreement from other member states to regulate the activities of their fishermen where this is required in waters beyond our 6-mile limits. We would also lack a proper justification for the regulatory burden placed on business or the enforcement and monitoring costs that fall on the taxpayer. That is why the evidence is essential.

The impact assessment that accompanied the consultation gave an indication of the costs and benefits of possible management measures for all the sites and provided a good indication of what might be expected. The management measures noted in the impact assessment were provided for illustrative purposes and to allow for the calculation of a range of potential cost implications for each site. Consultees were invited to comment on those in responding to the consultation and provide additional information to facilitate a better understanding of the possible implications of site designation and to help to refine associated costs. Management measures were not being consulted on at that stage. When an MCZ is designated, that does not automatically mean that economic or recreational activities on that site will be restricted. Restrictions on an activity will depend on the sensitivity of the species and habitats for which a site is designated to the activities taking place in that area and on the conservation objectives for those features.

I know that my hon. Friend cannot make up policy on the hoof in the absence of his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, but the Act says that the Government are required to consult on the designation, although it does not say that the Government or the MMO is required to consult on the management plan. Would the Minister be prepared to say that he will ensure that the Department makes sure that all stakeholders have the opportunity to be consulted on the management plan as it applies within the new MCZs?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would not make up policy on the hoof even if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was here, because that is not the way we do things in our Department. That said, the actual management measures will be drawn up separately and put in place by the relevant public authorities after designation and will be open for consultation, as appropriate, before they are implemented. I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) that that is exactly what will happen.

This is particularly relevant to the point raised by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, where there is a dispute about the evidence. I accept that the evidence at the moment is generic across the Hythe bay area. That is why we need more information about what is happening. Within the site, a rich sea pen and burrowing megafauna community is present in the soft sediment, which is presumed to be continuous across Hythe bay, based on data from sample points taken annually over a 10-year period. That is why the site is considered overall to be a biodiversity hot spot within the balanced seas area, but we need more information on exactly what is happening within that site.

On that point, does the Minister agree that it would be wrong to change the designation of the area unless there was very clear scientific evidence as to why that change needed to be made?

The precautionary principle suggests that we should do the reverse—that we should up the level of designation until such time as we can be confident that we will not be damaging the very ecological factors that give rise to the designation in the process—so that is the approach that we take, but it is sensitive to the information that we receive from the hon. Gentleman’s local fishermen, among others, who will have a deep interest in and knowledge of the seas with which they are familiar. We need to look at that, along with all the scientific evidence, and then make a subsequent assessment of how to manage the site. That will be based, as I said, on the real factors. What is there? What is its value? What would be the potential damage from unregulated activity on that site? That would apply to any site.

The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal was a little dismissive of ballast thrown overboard being a valuable habitat. I have to tell her that it can be an extremely valuable habitat if it is colonised by the right species and has therefore formed an ecosystem that is worthy of preservation. The derivation of the rocky material on the sea bed is not the issue. The issue is what is then growing on that material and how it relates to the surrounding environment.

I am not prejudging the hon. Lady’s case. I know nothing about the sites off Suffolk Coastal and I have not been briefed, because I was not aware that she was coming this afternoon, but I promise her that the same considerations will apply to her site as will apply to that of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe in ensuring that we have the right information on which to base a reasoned argument. That really is the answer, and I am sure that it is what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will say when he goes to Hythe to discuss these issues. Let us look at the evidence, see what the appropriate designation is and work with those who have a specific interest in those waters—of course that includes the fishing community—to arrive at something that will work for everyone concerned. There is a very heavy responsibility on Government to get this right.

I have no responsibility directly for fishing and maritime policy at the moment, but I was involved at the very start of this process, back in the 1980s, when I was arguing on behalf of the World Wide Fund for Nature for conservation of our seas. At that time it was not even being thought of, but we are now at a highly developed stage in the process, where we have something that is realistic and holistic around our island nation, and it is really important that we get it right.

To recap, the public consultation was launched on 13 December 2012 and closed on 31 March 2013. It gave stakeholders the opportunity to comment and provide more evidence on the proposed sites before final decisions are made. DEFRA received more than 40,000 responses to the public consultation. The evidence received from the public consultation, along with other evidence collected since the statutory nature conservation bodies submitted their advice in July 2012, is being evaluated and will be taken into consideration before Ministers make their final decisions on which sites to designate in the first tranche.

The Government remain committed to the development, as I said, of an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas. Now that the public consultation has closed, we aim to publish our response in the summer before making final decisions on which sites to designate in the first tranche this year. These zones are not the sum of our ambition: we expect to be taking forward more sites in the next phase. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury will announce the timetable for future designations of MCZs later this year.

The area of Hythe is a vital one. We want to get this right. I can assure the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe that we will make strenuous efforts to listen to what his constituents have to say and to the views of others with specialist knowledge in this area, and I hope that we will reach the right decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.