Posted 19th Dec 2016
We find out how Lissa Batey, one of the Living Seas team at The Wildlife Trusts gets on when protecting the sea
Just this summer I was lucky enough to find myself off the coast of south Devon, in Lyme Bay, not knowing what may behind the next breaking wave, enjoying the beauty of a seascape and the anticipation of encountering sea life.
I used to spend weeks of the year out searching for basking sharks and harbour poises, I was recording porpoises for my PhD, while working as first mate to The Wildlife Trusts Basking Shark Project on board the research yacht Forever Changes.
Nowadays I spend more time inside than out, so imagine my joy when the first of what turned out to be many fins were spotted on the horizon. We were looking for white-beaked dolphins in an area of sea that I believe should be included in the next round of creating Marine Conservation Zones, - areas where marine life will be protected. The fins turned out to be common dolphins – a group of about 8 with two calves – not white-beaks, but a delight all the same.
Back in 2009, I cheered when the government passed the Marine and Coastal Access Act, which gave the power to designate areas of the sea as Marine Conservation Zones. But once the (virtual) champagne had stopped flowing it was with huge trepidation that those of us in the NGO sector knew the job was only just beginning. We finally got the first wave of designated sites in 2013, when the government announced an initial 27 out of 127 originally proposed. We had mixed feelings at the time, delight that we had anything at all, countered with disappointment that we only had 27 – but this was to prove to be only the beginning.
A second tranche of 23 were added earlier this year, and taken with our European Marine Sites (Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas) this is significant progress. But it is not yet an ‘ecologically coherent network’ – a network which includes a bit of all marine habitats and species, in the right proportions and in right places, with areas that are close enough to be connected and allow species to travel between sites.
What we currently have doesn’t do this, the network of Marine Conservation Zones fail to protect our ocean predators, like whales and basking sharks, and there are other large gaps which need addressing.
A type of clam, the rare ocean quahog, which can live for 500 years finds its home in important, but unprotected mud habitats in the Irish Sea, and also in an area to the west of the Isle of Man, which is an important foraging area for seabirds, basking sharks, whales and dolphins. Yes, mud is special too! The dense seagrass meadows in Studland Bay, are home to both British seahorse species as well as the young of commercial species such as bass and bream. Then there are rare deep sea habitats and sandbanks which are feeding grounds for sea birds, whales, and dolphins off of the Isles of Scilly.
Now the UK Government says that it’s going to designate a third and final phase of Marine Conservation Zones – part of their 2015 manifesto commitment to delivering a ‘Blue Belt’ around the UK. So much depends on the choices that they make, I believe at least another 48 sites are desperately needed to complete the network; and there will undoubtedly be others that will need protecting in years to come as we learn more about our seas and sea life.
This week there’s an event in Westminster, held by Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of leading NGOs, of which The Wildlife Trusts are part. We’ll be asking as many MPs as possible to sign up to the Marine Charter to support the government in its plans to complete the network. Importantly, the Marine Charter calls for a full network that addresses current gaps.
So, while the common dolphins and harbour porpoise which swam and leapt by our boat at the end of the day weren’t the species we were looking, they were a beautiful reminder to me of why I do the job I do.
We all love the sea – and we expect so much from it - we take fish to eat, create energy from wind off-shore and expect to be able to extract aggregates for development. But now more than ever before we need to stop taking and start giving back.
Dr Lissa Batey is Living Seas Officer for The Wildlife Trusts.
Lead image courtesy of Paul Naylor