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Marine Environment

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 31 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How, before the introduction of a marine Bill, they will ensure that areas of the seabed of special conservation value are protected.

My Lords, protection to many areas of special conservation value is already afforded under current legislation. Existing protected sites in the marine area include 78 special protection areas for birds, 65 marine special areas of conservation and three statutory marine nature reserves.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Natural England advised Defra to close some 60 square miles of Lyme Bay, where the seabed containing some of the most vulnerable marine life, including sea corals, sponges and all sorts of wonderful things, was being destroyed by scallop dredging. That advice was supported by the Southern Sea Fisheries Committee, so the closure was supported by both environmental and economic interests. How does the noble Lord explain the Minister’s inexplicable response of closing only three small areas, making enforcement extremely difficult, and of closing them to all activity, including crab potting, line fishing and recreational angling? Is not Defra’s approach nonsense?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is misinformed. English Nature requested closure because of the pink sea fan, not because of the reef. That was done, and in fact four small areas containing 92 per cent of the known pink sea fan sites—part of the corals—have been protected. The reef is at risk, but we were not asked to deal with that. That will come later, but so far the case has not been made for it. As I said, English Nature did not request us to do what the noble Baroness implied.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this year a number of salmon grilse of extraordinary light weight have been caught? It is believed by many that the sand eel population is being scooped up by factory ships and turned into oil and that that is having a very damaging effect on the fish species further up the food chain. Will Defra look again at the problem of sand eels, which are very important for the fish and bird populations?

My Lords, I am certainly happy to take that back to the Defra Minister responsible for fishing because we want to protect the species that are currently protected and we also want to protect the seabed. We have certain legislative powers that we can use in advance of the marine Bill, which is what the Question was about—hence, the protected areas to which I referred in my Answer. I shall certainly take the matter back.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, although the conservation of the seabed is very important, the viability of our ports is also important? Ports need to dredge the seabed to get the big ships in. Can he ensure that the conservation requirements on those ports as regards dredging are not so stringent and strenuous as to prevent them from operating as they should be able to with ships of a reasonable depth?

My Lords, my understanding is that the precise areas and locations where excavating and dredging are permitted are carefully calculated. The activity is controlled and policed. I do not have any information on difficulties for those who are keeping ports open or for those who excavate the seabed. That is done only under licences, which are strictly policed.

My Lords, in due course. I will not say “shortly”, which is the answer that we always used to get, because I do not think that it will be shortly. That matter is still under discussion. I cannot forecast the slot in the parliamentary timetable when it will appear.

My Lords, I accept that the Minister says “in due course”, but what plans do the Government have to protect some species that are under threat around our shores? On the question put by my noble friend, the sand eel problem is not a new one; it has been highlighted in the House on many occasions.

My Lords, apparently in 2007 the offshore marine regulations will enable us for the first time to designate sites, even beyond territorial waters, to protect species and habitats of European importance. Some new powers will accrue to the Government in advance of the marine Bill. Clearly, I do not think that the marine Bill will appear early in 2007, but the offshore marine regulations are due at that time.

My Lords, I said that I would take the issue back to Defra and the fishing Minister, which I shall certainly do.