Nobody thought it would be easy to set up a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) around England's coastline. But I suspect nobody expected it to be quite as difficult as government has made it.
Over three years ago, the Marine and Coastal Access Act was passed with strong cross-party consensus and public support. The Act made it possible for ministers to create areas called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) - different to the established terminology of MPAs used elsewhere and an evasion which means nobody really knows what they are for, enabling opponents to claim they could stop harmless activities such as walking dogs on certain beaches. After the Act was passed, four regional stakeholder groups, comprising both conservationists and fishermen, were established to decide where these zones should be and where, within them, there should be 'reference areas' where no fishing or extractive use is permitted.
The stakeholder bodies duly recommended a network of 127 areas and their findings were duly endorsed by the statutory conservation agencies. Unfortunately, ministers have so far committed to creating just 31 of these MCZs and no reference areas. It is as if a fisherman, after battling what appeared to be an enormous fish, had landed a sprat.
Looking back, I am frankly doubtful that anyone in the last government or the conservation agencies gave enough thought to what they were doing. The MCZ network, as proposed, does not seek to protect iconic species the public can identify with - whales, dolphins, sharks or even fish. Instead, conservation policymakers focused on designating geological and other natural features on the seabed. Habitats are important, but so are species, such as fish, that are often mobile or migratory.
So it is questionable whether the proposed MCZ network confers the degree of protection to ecosystems that the public might expect. Worst of all, nobody seems to have remembered one of the most essential tenets of conservation, which is - to paraphrase the Duke of Edinburgh, when he was President of WWF International in the 1970s - that you don't get anywhere without the support of local people, whether in the Masai Mara or Scotland.
When Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) reviewed the process, we were fairly appalled. While we sympathised with those conservation groups accusing the government of delay, we found the most telling criticisms were from fishermen who saw the introduction of a network of MCZs of vaguely discernible purpose as the thin end of a wedge that could lead to their industry in most forms being displaced altogether. I am surprised that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) continues to insist that the designation of features and the management of these areas are separate processes - the second of which it hasn't come to yet. How off-putting. Indeed, it's envisaged that a whole new consultation about how to manage MCZs will be announced once the boundaries have been decided. No wonder fishermen feel fed up.
What BLUE believes - and the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology has backed us on this - is that how reserves are managed is key to their acceptability. If there are obvious benefits to be derived from being part of a managed area, more people will put up with the imposition. We've set out to demonstrate exactly the benefits of MPAs for both commercial and recreational stakeholders in Lyme Bay on the Dorset/Devon coast, where 90 sq miles of coral-encrusted reefs were closed to dredging and trawling in 2008. Fishermen and conservationists were on poor terms, the site was being overfished by pots and nets and the newly- established Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) had yet to determine how the reefs should be managed.
By establishing a steering committee dominated by local fishermen but with a conservation remit, and including on it the two IFCAs and the Marine Management Organisation, we quickly succeeded in establishing a voluntary code of conduct designed to deal with overfishing and keep larger boats out of the area. We also secured funding from Marks & Spencer, a forward-thinking company that sees the potential of such consensual, bottom-up management models for the whole British coast. Defra, to its great credit, then came up with research funding to prove that what our fishermen are doing is sustainable.
We also aim to create a quality, traceability and sustainability mark for seafood caught in the area, which we expect to be highly sought-after. It is a first, in the UK at least, and we have three years to produce results. Wish us well. We hope to prove that marine reserves, which is what the public likes to call them, create benefits for fishermen, their communities and for fish. If we succeed, we will have removed a major obstacle to their creation.