Inaction best protects open marine habitats, experts say

"Doing nothing" to heal damaged and polluted underwater habitats could be more environmentally beneficial than intervening to restore or remediate them, according to top UK marine ecologists.

At a conference discussing the state of the UK’s marine habitats and what can be done to repair them, the question was not “can we fix it” but rather “should we fix it” as experts from marine conservation groups pointed out how many recovery attempts just made a bad situation worse.

“There is a common belief that doing something has to be better than doing nothing, but it is not necessarily so,” spokesperson for the Wildlife Trusts, Lisa Browning explained. “Just as tree planting isn’t the universal solution to terrestrial problems, restoration is not guaranteed to improve the marine environment.”

Steve Hawkins, director of the Marine Biological Association, cited one example of natural recovery being made worse by human intervention as being the oil spill at Torrey Canyon, which took 10 years to recover from the clean up effort, rather than the actual oil spill.

He speculated that perhaps, in such a case, creating a marine protected environment or a “buffer” zone would have enabled the polluted area to heal itself and its ecosystem much quicker.

“People like to be able to do something,” Dr Hawkins told delegates. “But, although it tends to create a sense of political inertia, ‘doing nothing’ is often the best thing to do in order to allow a habitat to rehabilitate itself.”

However, he added that recovery, restoration and remediation were still vital to healing habitats in the case of closed areas, such as lagoons and commercial dock basins.

Although some marine habitats are still in much the same condition as they were 50 years ago, there are also many sea beds and marine environments that have been heavily damaged by pollution, over-fishing and heavy fishing gear.

“Much more damage has been inflicted on our ecosystems than was previously thought,” spokesperson for the Marine Life Information Network (MarLIN), Keith Hiscock warned. “But recovery should be possible in time, as long as we improve the monitoring of protected sites.”

He added that self-healing was key, but preventing damage to habitats was the ideal solution.

“Some habitats will never recover, and intervention to restore many damaged marine areas would now be difficult, if not impossible,” Dr Hiscock said in conclusion.

“The simple solution is that we just must stop breaking them in the first place.”

By Jane Kettle

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie