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Marine Conservation Areas

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they are making in the designation of sites as marine conservation areas.

My Lords, we are currently holding a public consultation on proposals to designate a first tranche of up to 31 marine conservation zones in 2013. These will complement the large number of existing marine protected areas to contribute to an ecologically coherent network.

My Lords, I first congratulate the Government on carrying this project forward, and especially commend the impetus given to it by the Minister, Richard Benyon. Ought we not now to be pressing ahead much more urgently? Could the Minister say when the next tranche of marine conservation zones will be announced and how many there will be? Is it not the case, if further evidence is required, that existing marine conservation zones demonstrate remarkable replenishment of fishing stock? Does that not give longer-term security to commercial fisheries? Could we not have an early ban on the sort of scallop dredging that has taken place off the coast of Yorkshire, which effectively scalps the seabed?

Finally, I ask for a clear timetable to be given now for an ecologically coherent network of marine protection plans.

My Lords, my noble friend asked first when additional sites will be brought forward in a tranche. We will shortly be in a position to assess how the consultation has gone. I very much hope that we will be in a position to make a further announcement on more sites thereafter.

My noble friend essentially asks whether we do not already have enough evidence. I give him some examples of the type of evidence that we require, which goes a little further than he suggested. We are doing additional habitat and seabed mapping, an in-depth review of the evidence base supporting the recommendations from the regional projects, a study of the value of spatial protection measures for mobile species, and studies to enable the quantification of benefits from the impact assessment.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that most marine protection areas benefit very much from the original inhabitants living there and helping to look after it, unlike those of the Chagos Islands, whose disgraceful exile means that they can play no part?

My Lords, I would not want to criticise what other countries are doing, but I agree with the noble Baroness about the protection that these zones can give to the species and habitats that we are seeking to protect.

My Lords, I declare an interest as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Taking the second part of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Eden, further, can the Minister say what consideration has been given to the small inshore fishermen whose livelihood depends on fishing in some of these designated areas?

The noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right to raise the issue. These fishermen have been involved as stakeholders in the regional projects and their representations will certainly be taken into account in the consultation.

My Lords, 58 marine areas are said to be seriously threatened and in need of immediate protection. Will the Minister say when the scientific evidence that the Government are commissioning at a cost of £3.5 million will be available, so that decisions about further designations can be made?

Yes, my Lords. First, it is worth saying that a sizeable proportion of the 58 are included in the 31 that are currently out for consultation. As regards the others, there are questions over data certainty and cost to which my noble friend Lord Eden referred earlier. We will have new scientific evidence to use along with responses to our consultation when making our final decisions on which sites should be designated this year. Further evidence will continue to become available thereafter and will be considered when making decisions on future tranches of marine conservation zones to complete the network.

My Lords, the aim of the marine Act was, as the noble Lord, Lord Eden, said, to establish an ecologically coherent network of sustainable conservation zones. The Government’s current suggestion of just 31 falls way short of achieving that aim and ignores the Government’s own science. The environmental and social gains of protecting our marine environment are obvious, but has the Minister seen the analysis showing an economic gain of £10 billion in Scotland alone through this sort of protection? Instead of trading insults with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the Guardian, should not Richard Benyon, the Minister in the noble Lord’s department, build on what the previous Government established and, as the noble Lord, Lord Eden, has asked, give us a clear timetable—not “shortly”—for further implementation?

My Lords, I cannot accept very much of what the noble Lord has said. Far from what he has said, over the past three years we have been changing the way we manage our seas. We have introduced marine planning, set up new organisations to police our seas, improved marine licensing, reformed domestic fisheries management and, vitally, introduced marine conservation zones.

My Lords, can my noble friend give us a little more detail on the timing that will ensue from the 31 areas that he has out for consultation at the moment? At what point will these receive European recognition as proper conservation areas, and what powers do the Government seek to enable us to control these, when they are outwith our immediate territorial boundaries?

My noble friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. I have done the best I can to address the issue of timing. We will complete the consultation and, as soon as we can, we will announce its results and move on to further tranches. As regards the involvement of the European Union, and indeed individual member states, of course they will be listened to when they make their responses to the consultation.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government will continue to take a balanced approach when designating these sites, taking into account all interests? Will he also confirm that any site will not inhibit the free passage of international shipping on which we, as an island nation, depend for almost all our needs?

Again, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that all sides of the argument must be listened to. They have been in the process through the regional projects, they will continue to be listened to through the consultations, and similar processes will apply in future tranches.