Summit announces greatly extended ocean protection and sustainable fishing plan

The UK government has announced plans to extend European environmental protection to 200 nautical miles offshore while delegates at WWF’s Oceans Recovery Summit agreed to create a plan to steer fisheries towards sustainability.

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Margaret Beckett announced that she intends to extend the EU’s Habitats Directive from its current limit of 12 nautical miles offshore to 200, and that the first site to be confirmed as a Special Area of Conservation in this zone has already been selected. Speaking at the WWF’s Oceans Recovery Summit in Edinburgh on 23 October, Beckett was laying the foundations for the UK to become the first EU country to make such a move and said that the Government hopes to lay the regulations needed to achieve this by early 2002.

“Our oceans and seas are teeming with unique habitats and forms of life,” the Minister said. “It has been estimated that up to half of the biodiversity in the UK may be found in our seas, so it is vital that we improve our understanding of our marine environment and take action to protect their richness and diversity.” Beckett said that she expected the Darwin Mounds, a unique collection of sandy and cold-water coral mounds, situated about 120 miles north-west of Cape Wrath in Scotland and at risk from damage by deep-sea trawlers, to be the first site granted protection under the new rules.

The mounds, which were only discovered in 1998, are located at a depth of 1000 metres in the Rockall Trough and support a substantial population of the deep-water coral Lophelia pertusa and high abundances of giant protozoans. “The resulting habitat differs substantially from the surrounding seabed with very high associated biodiversity – similar to that of a tropical rainforest,” the Minister said. “Species associated with the mounds include sponges, starfish, worms, sea urchins, sea stars, gastropods, crabs and deep-sea demersal fish.”

In a separate development, representatives involved in the marine environment, from a range of organisations including government agencies, fishermen, industry, shipping, scientists and voluntary groups signed up to the ‘Edinburgh Declaration for Oceans Recovery’, committing relevant parties to create a plan of sustainability for the fishing industry at a time of unprecedented loss of stocks. The plan is expected in about a year.

In response, the Scottish Parliament decided to debate a motion supporting the summit on 25 October with an Early Day Motion in the Houses of Parliament in support of the Declaration to follow. At the summit, Rhona Brankin, Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development in Scotland, called for a reformed Common Fisheries Policy that should be more regionally based.

WWF also issued a call for the creation of an Oceans Act to improve on previous regulation by integrating the management of the full range of activities that take place at sea and introducing legislation specifically aimed at the protection of marine wildlife and habitats. “Only by co-ordinating the different protection bodies and areas under a single umbrella of legislation can we coherently manage our seas,” said Matthew Davis, WWF’s Oceans Campaign Director.

“This summit captures a shared momentum for action and heralds the beginning of a genuine commitment to change,” commented Robert Napier, Chief Executive of WWF-UK. “A Marine Stewardship Report is being prepared by government and there is a great deal of activity on issues as wide-ranging as fishing and new Marine Protected Areas. These measures offer hope but they must be properly co-ordinated. We have had no common vision, little co-ordination, no national oceans policy – an incredible failure for an island nation.”

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