ANIMALS and habitats on Hilbre Island, Little Eye and Middle Eye in the Dee Estuary could benefit from a new form of marine protection, according to recommendations being put to government advisors by sea users today.
The newly-recommended Marine Conservation Zone would protect blue mussel beds, as well as areas of peat and clay on the island that are home to burrowing clams called piddocks. The holes created by the clams provide an important micro-habitat for species such as crabs and anemones.
At 5km square, the Hilbre Island Group Marine Conservation Zone is the smallest of the 15 sites being recommended in the Irish Sea project area. The three islands are connected to the mainland at low tide, when they can be reached on foot. This is a popular activity with tourists.
The aim is for Marine Conservation Zones to have the least impact possible on people’s activities, but some restrictions will apply as the zones must meet guidelines for protecting species and habitats.
According to the recommendations, people’s activities are only likely to need additional management if they affect the peat and clay beds or the areas of blue mussels.
In total, there are 19 recommended Marine Conservation Zones in the Irish Sea project area, from the Welsh border to the Scottish border, covering a total area of almost 4,000 square kilometres.
The recommendations are part of a national project to identify Marine Conservation Zones all around England. The project is the first time in the UK that recommendations for marine conservation were developed by sea users themselves. No other country has adopted the approach on such a large scale.
The Irish Sea recommendations were developed by a regional stakeholder group made up of around 40 people with diverse interests, from fishermen to sea anglers, yachtsmen, scientists, industry representatives and conservationists. Their recommendations were based on their first-hand knowledge and experience of the sea, as well as the best available evidence.
As well as the regional stakeholder group, thousands of other sea users have helped with the project. By the end of the project, the ISCZ team had met over 3,500 people at more than 300 meetings in around 100 different locations throughout North West England, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The team gathered almost 300 questionnaires from sea users that capture vital firsthand knowledge about the Irish Sea.
The regional stakeholder group has also made recommendations for a different kind of Marine Conservation Zones called Reference Areas. These will be smaller areas that are set aside, providing a unique opportunity for scientists to study how marine habitats and animals might change if the area is left untouched.
Putting forward the recommended Marine Conservation Zones is the first big step towards this new form of marine protection. Early in 2012, government ministers will decide which recommended zones to take forward to a formal public consultation. The consultation will take place next summer and will give people another opportunity to comment on the proposals. The government then aims to designate the Marine Conservation Zones by the end of 2012.
Anyone who wants to keep up to date on the Marine Conservation Zones Project should sign up for the digital newsletter by visiting jncc.defra.gov.uk.
Dr Greg Whitfield, project manager at Irish Sea Conservation Zones, said: “This is the first time in the UK that sea users themselves have been at the heart of recommending areas for marine conservation to the government”.
“Despite bringing very different points of view to the table, the members of the regional stakeholder group have come up with a very successful set of recommendations. I would like to thank them wholeheartedly for their hard work and dedication”.
“Around the world there is a growing consensus that our seas need new protection and the UK is at the forefront of an ambitious expansion of marine conservation.
“The Hilbre Island recommended Marine Conservation Zone is set to play an important role in this historic process.”
Marine Minister Richard Benyon said: “The thousands of species of sea life and habitats that live hidden under our waters need just as much protection as those that we can see on land.
“Today has seen our ambition to put in place special protection areas for marine life off the coast of England, take a significant step forward.
“I’d like to thank the four regional projects for all the hard work and I look forward to seeing how the proposals develop over the coming year.”