We need Marine Conservation Zones. It’s a personal conviction and a professional opinion, both borne out of observation and experience. But being FOR conservation is not the same as being AGAINST fishing, or any other marine activity. We need equal consideration for all sea-based activities – but at the moment, conservation is not equal.

I’m the Operations Manager at Living Coasts which, along with Paignton Zoo Environmental Park and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, is part of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Living Coasts stands with its feet in the waters of Tor Bay. It’s an attraction where visitors can walk with penguins and discover some of the natural wonders of the world’s coastlines. But Torquay’s coastal zoo and aquarium is also a registered education and conservation charity. We’re about educating visitors and advocating on behalf of marine conservation to promote the value of the sea.

I support Marine Conservation Zones. Why? Because there’s a wealth of wonder beneath the waves – but it’s under-protected. People don’t realise what we have because it’s out of sight, out of mind. The conservation of marine habitats is decades behind what we do on land – and land-based conservation is hardly in the best of health. At the moment, less than 3% of the UK’s waters are managed for any kind of conservation. That’s an incredibly small percentage. Marine Conservation Zones are helping us catch up, but we have a long way to go.

Let’s stick to my part of South Devon. The conurbation of tourist towns and fishing villages is Torbay, the water enclosed by the protecting curve of coast is Tor Bay. In Tor Bay there are reefs and seagrass beds which provide immensely rich and valuable habitats as nursery grounds for many fish species and homes for such enigmatic species as the seahorse.

Marine habitats provide vital support systems for human populations, but those human populations put pressure on our coastal waters. This pressure comes in many forms, from shipping and leisure to tourism and the fishing industry. Torbay, like most coastal communities, struggles to balance the needs of these different groups.

I support effective, well-managed MCZs. I also support sustainable fisheries and responsible recreation on and in the sea. I see that the natural environment of Torbay, particularly the sea and coastline, are major drivers of tourism to the area and the Tor Bay MCZ will have significant positive impacts on tourism and leisure industries. I recognise that many people in different industries are concerned about MCZs – I think everyone should work together to make MCZs work for all of us.

It’s been suggested that MCZs are pushing out and killing off fishing – I don’t agree. MCZs are small areas in which fishing practices may not even need to change depending on the reason for protection. In others, fishing practices may need to change or different methods used. But MCZs are not all about bans to fishing – they’re about good management. DEFRA’s policy says management measures with the least socio-economic impacts should be used to achieve conservation goals.

Too much fishing means too few fish. There is evidence from Lundy and work in New Zealand that fish stocks regenerate in protected areas and then spread back out into fishing grounds, so benefitting fishermen. One great argument is that MCZs will ensure that there are fish and therefore fisherman for generations to come. It’s as simple as that. This is as much about fisherman as it is conservation!

Living Coasts campaigned for Marine Conservation Zones along with the Marine Conservation Society and many other non-government organisations. Many bodies work to maintain MCZs, including DEFRA, who designate MCZs, the Marine Management Organisation, which has byelaw-making powers and statutory responsibility, the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, Natural England, the Environment Agency and Torbay Harbour Authority. There’s a lot of cooperation and a lot of representation – and that’s the way to go.

Marine and coastal areas are attractive but vulnerable. Over the years Living Coasts has put the problems of overfishing, marine plastics, bycatch and biodiversity in front of its visitors. Biodiversity is a technical term, a buzzword - all it means is variety, the sheer dazzling complexity of life. The endless forms most beautiful, as Darwin put it.

Living Coasts is part of a project called the Community Seagrass Initiative which is a good example of cooperation. It covers the 191 mile stretch of coastline from Looe in Cornwall, to Weymouth in Dorset. It’s a partnership with the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University Marine Institute, Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust and Weymouth SEALIFE, made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

School children, sailors, canoeists, divers, kayakers and even internet users can all take part in this citizen science project – they can all help collect vital data to aid the mapping and surveying of seagrass meadows along the south coast. Seagrass is important it its own right, and also provides food, shelter and nursery areas for many other species. It helps stabilize the seabed. Conservation can bring us together and stabilize the marine environment in the same way.

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