Skip to main content

Lindisfarne Highly Protected Marine Conservation Area

Volume 828: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential impact of the proposed creation of the Lindisfarne Highly Protected Marine Conservation Area on the fishing community and the local economy of Holy Island.

My Lords, the Government have consulted on a proposal to designate five pilot highly protected marine areas. The Secretary of State announced this morning the Government’s decision to designate three of these sites. The Lindisfarne site will not be taken forward. A Written Ministerial Statement has been deposited in both Houses.

Very timely, my Lords. Fishing and wildlife have coexisted around Holy Island since the days of St Aidan in the 7th century. The proposed Lindisfarne highly protected marine area would have destroyed the small-scale, well-regulated lobster fishery, which provides essential employment for island families. Does the Minister, who has taken a close interest in the matter himself, which I welcome, agree that the welcome decision not to go ahead with the plan helps Holy Island to remain a working community as well as a wonderful place of pilgrimage and tourism?

The noble Lord’s knowledge of this area is, of course, understood, and he is absolutely right. This was a meaningful consultation that sought the views of people from all sectors that affected the area, and it was deemed not right to take it forward as a highly protected marine area. It is, of course, a marine conservation zone. It has at least 850 species and a very valuable benthic population of seagrass in certain parts, and it is an extraordinary neighbourhood for tourists as well as people who exploit it in a sustainable way. We are now progressing designating other sites and making sure that we continue to listen to local people as well as conservationists, and that we get this right.

I was going to stand up today and congratulate the Government for actually doing something right for once. They were going to establish five of these highly protected marine areas. Do I understand that they have dropped two plus Lindisfarne, including Farnes Deep? What exactly is happening, and why are the Government so lackadaisical about something so important?

When Michael Gove was the Secretary of State, he asked me to chair a panel of scientists and others to look at whether we should have highly protected marine areas as part of our suite of marine protections. The conclusion of the embarrassingly named Benyon review was that we should, and that it was vital to do this—but we had to do it in the right way. We recommended that five pilot sites be created, and that we should consult and learn from the lessons of not only this but the implementation of the Marine and Coastal Access Act about a decade ago, when we came across the same problem with what were then called reference areas. We will now take forward at least two further sites as part of the pilot project, so the noble Baroness will be reassured that we will have at least five pilot sites, and then we will continue to grow this. I could extol the virtues of highly protected marine areas exhaustively, but I cannot in the time allowed to me in this Question.

My Lords, are the Government concerned about the very large supertrawlers —foreign owned, very often—that are now starting to fish particularly off the west coast of the United Kingdom?

Trawler activity on our seabeds is often incompatible with marine conservation. We want to make sure that while we are helping our fishing industry prosper in the new world in which we live, we are also mindful that what legitimate British fishing interests on these islands want is a rising biomass. That requires us to have marine conservation running alongside productive fisheries. The actions of some international vessels coming into our waters is of course of concern when they are breaking the rules, and we have available very strict enforcement policies.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that the word “Lindisfarne” appears in my title. When this marine area was proposed, which would have caused a lot of the difficulty that the noble Lord, Lord Beith, talked about, he and I and the vicar of Lindisfarne consulted the people extensively. I was quite surprised that some locals thought that, by taking the title Baron Sentamu of Lindisfarne in the county of Northumberland, I had brought a curse to the island, so I am very glad that this afternoon I can go away without cursing anybody.

As it is a conservation area, will the same energy be put into ensuring that birds that come during their breeding season, particularly terns and others, and then go to north Africa, will continue to be protected? Secondly, the ferns on St Cuthbert’s, particularly the little one, are being eroded by global warming. What further work will the Government undertake to ensure that we do not lose those ferns?

The noble and right reverend Lord’s knowledge and understanding of this area and his support for the people who live there are appreciated. I had a letter from his successor, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, as well as letters from monks and many others, so I applaud the Church for its involvement in the consultation process. On his wider point, I entirely accept that there is an ongoing need for greater scientific understanding of what is going on. The value of our oceans in sequestering carbon is immense, and our understanding of blue carbon is increasing but not fast enough. In this area, some very valuable seagrass is deteriorating because of climate change and other factors, and we want to make sure that we are preserving it and, where possible, increasing it, because of its value to the environment.

My Lords, I agree with the praise heaped upon the Vicar of Holy Island, Sarah Hills, and the fishing community, which has done a wonderful job in standing up for its community. The Minister mentioned that lessons were learned from this review. What lessons were learned to help protect island communities doing sustainable fishing, such as those on Holy Island?

It is a generalisation, but by and large local inshore fishing is much the most sustainable and we want to see it encouraged. It delivers most for our coastal communities, and the sense of place, the sense of community it brings to those areas benefits not just them but the vast numbers of people, including myself, who regularly go on holiday to places like Bamburgh and know that part of the world. It really is important that we listen to those voices, that we help them to ensure that their fisheries continue to be sustainable, and that we increase the biomass in the seas so that not only they but future generations can fish them productively.

My Lords, the first three highly protected marine areas have been designated, as the Minister said. One is in Allonby Bay, near me, in Cumbria. While I absolutely support marine conservation and the importance of these sites, Maryport Town Council has been in touch because it is concerned about the impacts on an area that has been struggling. I am aware that the Secretary of State said that the decision takes account of the needs of Maryport harbour, so what assurances can the Minister give to local fishers at Maryport marina that they will have government support to counteract any negative social or economic impacts of the decision?

We amended the boundary of this site to reflect precisely the points raised by the noble Baroness and will continue to work with local people, particularly fishers, to do this. In the course of my review, we looked at highly protected marine areas around the world, and where they work best, their greatest supporters are the fishermen, because they see flowing out of them increased quantities of fish. These are areas where fish spawn and shoal at different times of year. The benefit of that to fishermen outside those areas, if we get this right, will be enormous. That is what we want for fishermen in that area.

My Lords, are our seas safe to fish in, given the amount of pollution this Government and the regulators are allowing the sewerage companies to pump into our oceans?

We want to continue to make sure that our marine areas achieve good environmental status, as we set out in our marine strategy. That involves dealing with plastics, litter and the quality of water flowing from land into the sea. It is at the heart of all our policies and we will work towards achieving it.

In the light of what the noble Lord has just said, will he look at the predicament of fishing in Whitby, just down the coast from Holy Island, where there has been the terrible death of all the crustaceans—lobsters and crabs—decimating the fishing industry in North Yorkshire and south Durham?

We are looking very carefully and determinedly to find a solution to this. The noble Lord will know that we commissioned our chief scientific adviser, Professor Henderson, to lead a panel of 10 experts to look into this, including the maintenance dredging going on there, the dredging around the new freeport and the pathology we can find from the dead crabs that have been washed up. It is regrettable that we have yet to find a reason for it, but that does not mean we have stopped looking. We are using the expertise not only in Defra and its wider agencies but in other areas of academia to try to find out what caused this serious problem.