Scheme to earmark protected wildlife habitats in North Sea

WORK is beginning on a ground-breaking environmental project to protect parts of the North Sea from industries such as commercial fishing and power generation for generations to come.

Marine conservationists, fishermen, energy industry leaders and other interested parties will be brought together over an 18-month period to decide which parts of the UK's eastern coastal waters should be permanently protected as wildlife habitats.

The establishment of Marine Conservation Zones – which will be similar to the national parks protecting important parts of the countryside – is a key part of the new Marine and Coastal Access Act which came into force recently.

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As well as extending public rights of access to the coastline – upsetting landowners along the way – the Act is intended to help preserve the coastal waters from heavy industry.

A report by Natural England described Yorkshire's coastal waters as being in "very poor condition".

Conservationists are delighted, as environmental groups such as the RSPB have campaigned for more than a decade for such legislation.

Its Marine Task Force chairman Joan Edwards said: "The Act is an incredibly important milestone in the management of the UK's seas. It will establish a comprehensive marine planning and licensing system, improve the way our fisheries are managed and introduce new tools to protect marine habitats and wildlife.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's been worth the wait."

Fishing businesses have accepted increase conservation as inevitable, but warn over-protection will further squeeze their already-struggling industry.

Barry Deas, chief executive of the York-based National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, said: "The Bill is a framework. It doesn't say where these conservation zones are going to be or what size they will be, and therefore it's difficult to assess at this stage the impact on the fishing industry.

"We recognise there's a political imperative to introduce conservation zones and there's no point in bleating about that. What we can say is we want a collaborative approach rather than a dictatorial one."

A new regional quango called Net Gain has been set up to oversee the process of deciding which eastern coastal waters should be protected.

Chief executive Joanne Redhead said it is down to the interested parties themselves to make the final decision.

She said: "The difference between what we're doing and what's been done before is we're taking a stakeholder-led approach. By stakeholder I mean anybody who has an interest in or uses the sea for the livelihood or for recreation.

"We will be collecting information from the sea-users like fishermen, anglers, divers, oil and gas firms and people who use it recreationally.

"We then give that data to a group of key stakeholders and ask them to come to a consensus about where the zones should be. It's totally different from the normal top-down approach."

The process has started with a series of roadshows across Yorkshire to inform people about the Net Gain project.

Ms Redhead accepts the prospect of wildlife groups and industrial-scale fishermen coming to an agreement will be "challenging", but is confident it can be achieved. Her group must submit its final recommendations in 18 months' time.

The new Act has cross-party support, both in the House of Commons and among MPs with coastal constituencies.

Great Grimsby Labour MP Austin Mitchell said: "This is a good piece of legislation. The problem is if these zones are used as a way of further regulating the fishing industry – that's totally undesirable. But fishermen do want sustainable fishing."