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Solent marine conservation zone rejected
IT is a stretch of water that is abuzz with activity.
From flotillas of small boats and yachts to kite surfers jumping out of the waves, all dwarfed by the supersized tankers bringing goods to and from port.
But it is what lies beneath the waters of the Solent that is at the centre of a fresh row between Government and those who are charged with protecting the natural habitats that lie there.
Despite it being a heavily used stretch of water, the Solent also boasts a range of seabed habitats that support a host of weird and wonderful marine life.
Although clearly no tropical paradise, a quick scuba dive beneath the waters around the Isle of Wight would probably find you a sea horse or two, a type of starfish that regrows its own arms and a spoon worm that has its brain in its tongue.
At certain times of the year the area also plays host to nursery grounds for fish including mackerel and a certain type of shark.
So it was for precisely these reasons that sites around the Solent were put forward to be designated as Marine Conservation Zones.
Set up in 2009 under legislation, the zones were designed to afford more protection to marine habitats that hitherto had not qualified under the stricter EU designations.
Regional groups were formed comprising of all those who had an interest in the water including fishermen, sailing bodies, wind farm organisations and environmental groups.
Two years of discussion and research later saw 31 sites in the south east put forward for designation of which the Government has announced nine will be progressed with none around Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
It was a decision that was met with incredulity by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust who had gathered much of the evidence to support the proposal.
Head of conservation Jolyon Chesworth said: “We are bitterly disappointed that some of our richest habitats and most fantastic species will not benefit from protection.
“The consultation process cost taxpayers over £8.8m. It was a good example of the Government’s Big Society in action, people from different backgroundsworking together for a common aim, to protect our seas.
Unfortunately, it does not appear the Big Society is being listened to.”
According to the Government the majority of the proposed sites failed due to a lack of evidence. Not so, say the trust which carried out extensive research and sought experts approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
“There is sound and safe ecological evidence gathered through sea bed mapping photos, mapping and the Government’s own experts. So they are ignoring their own advice,” said Mr Chesworth.”
He suggested the real reason lay not in the ecology but in the economy after inspection of the Government’s decision-making found much of it seemed to rest on socio-economic grounds.
He said: “In short, the Government is saying it is just not affordable to designate some of these sites because of the potential financial impact it would have.
“In one example they said to have a site off Bembridge would impact on the port industry as that is where ships tend to drop anchor when they are waiting. But there are ways around that.
“If these zones were to go ahead it would not necessarily mean the banning of some activities like sailing or fishing, it would mean managing those activities that have an impact on the habitats.”
Although the Government had said that more sites are likely to be designated in the future the trust says it has lost confidence.
The trust is urging people to write to their MP and register their feelings with Defra who have opened up a consultation that runs until the end of March.
A Defra spokesman said: “This is not about numbers or about drawing lines on a map. It is about setting out what we are protecting and where, and that these areas are properly managed.
“We have carefully considered the evidence, and these 31 sites are the ones that are suitable to be designated later this year.”
• What are Marine Conservation Zones?
MARINE Conservation Zones (MCZs) will protect areas covering the habitats and species which exist in our seas.
They will be used to protect areas that are important to conserve the diversity of nationally
rare, threatened and representative habitats and species.
Once established it would be up to authorities like the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority and the Marine management Organisation to ensure they are being properly
managed and monitored.