Marine life left unprotected from shipping pollution

Important environmentally sensitive areas of the UK coastline have been excluded from new Government measures aimed at protecting marine life from shipping accidents, environmentalists say.

The Isles of Scilly in southwest England and the Minches – between Skye and the Outer Hebrides – have been excluded from a list of environmentally sensitive areas of the coastline where mariners will be required to take extra care.

Under new measures introduced this week, the government has marked out 32 Marine Environmental High Risk Areas (MEHRAs), covering 9% of the UK coast in total. The concept of MEHRAs emerged from a report by the late Lord Donaldson produced in response the 1993 Braer tanker disaster, which had killed 5000 seabirds close to the Shetland coast.

“The locations of these areas have been identified after taking into account shipping risk, environmental sensitivity and other environmental protection measures already in place at each location,” Transport secretary Alistair Downing said when announcing the measures on Monday. “MEHRAs will be an essential aid to passage planning since their primary purpose is to inform ships’ masters of areas where they need to exercise even more caution than usual.”

Environmentalists denounce the measures as a late response to the Braer disaster, and the exclusion of the Scilly Islands and the Minches despite these being areas Lord Donaldson had suggested should be protected.

To have taken so long to produce something so incomplete mocks the concept of protection Lord Donaldson valued so highly. The Isles of Scilly and the Minches both teem with wildlife and the Minches are hugely important to coastal fishermen and fish farming operations,” said Kate Tanner, Marine Policy Officer at the RSPB.

“The Isles of Scilly and parts of the Minches were given as examples of potential MEHRA sites by Lord Donaldson and have been repeatedly recommended for protection by conservation bodies. An oil spill in either area would devastate the habitats of seabirds, whales and dolphins and other marine life, and be a disaster for local economies,” she said.

Alison Champion, Marine Policy Officer at WWF said: “The identification of sensitive sites and protection in the right place is invaluable for wildlife, the industries depending on it and other businesses which currently waste money and energy battling for the same stretches of water.”

The Government assures it will use other measures to protect the Minches coastal area. As the Minches channel is used for international navigation, these measures will first need to be approved by the International Marine Organisation. “It has been decided that the UK will propose new routeing measures for the Minches to the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation for approval in July 2006,” according to the MEHRA report.

The MEHRAs project was also criticised for lack of concrete measures to protect the areas marked out as environmentally sensitive.

“Not only is this list incomplete but details of the management measures to be utilised to protect the MEHRAs from future oil spills are too vague at present. If protection and management measures are inadequate then the listing of MEHRAs will be a waste of time,” said Melissa Moore, Senior Policy Officer at the Marine Conservation Society.

By Goska Romanowicz

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