MPs: marine protection plans ‘left to flounder’

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The government is letting “flounder” moves to create a network of areas that protect the UK’s seas and their wildlife, MPs have warned.

Ministers should not stall on creating marine conservation zones in UK waters because they are afraid of judicial review by those opposed to the project, the cross-party science and technology committee said.

Some 127 marine conservation zones have been proposed, but the environment department has consulted on designating just 31 sites, without setting out how they would be implemented or managed, the MPs said. And they said that the government appears to have shifted the goalposts to increase the amount of scientific evidence needed to support the designation of the protected areas.

Instead of requiring the best available scientific evidence to select sites which would protect important habitats and wildlife, as the selection process neared completion, the government said it needs the best, evidence possible, regardless of the feasibility of such a demand.

It has been more than three years since the Marine and Coastal Access Act was passed to pave the way for the creation of conservation zones, with strong cross-party and public support, a report by the committee said. But as a result of delays in the designation process, sensitive environments have been further degraded and industries such as fishing subject to uncertainty.

The MPs warned that the project risks losing sight of its original vision to conserve the seas around the UK.

Committee chairman Andrew Miller said: “Properly managed marine conservation zones will protect marine wildlife in the UK’s coastal waters and ensure the fishing industry has a sustainable long-term future.

“The government is currently letting the project flounder while sensitive environments are further degraded and the industry is subjected to further uncertainty.”