We need a new approach to marine conservation

Paul Kay calls for the creation of underwater national parks in Wales

As a specialist professional underwater photographer  who relies on a healthy marine environment for my livelihood I have a great deal of sympathy for the worries of fisherman at the imposition of Marine Conservation zones. I too believe that this whole concept and consultation is fatally flawed. However, the resulting heightened profile of the Welsh marine environment is an opportunity to actually try to achieve something with a far more positive outcome.

As I see it, what is really needed is a truly integrated approach to the entire Welsh marine environment by the Welsh Government. To do this the Welsh Government needs to establish very clear aims for what it wants to see achieved in the marine environment. These need to be specific and stated with absolute clarity, rather than merely expressing the desire for ‘healthy Welsh seas’ or shrouded by the use of an excess of scientific, technical jargon. The government also needs to engage with all the ‘stakeholders’.

As an example of how things need to change, fisheries should be dealt with within an integrated marine management system so that they are not isolated and constantly at odds with the aspirations of other stakeholders. Wales needs sustainable and responsible local fisheries. Now may well be the time to try to sort this out properly.

I would like to see local fishermen having a real and genuine stake in their fishery. I don’t see that ‘sustainable, responsible’ fisheries are incompatible with a healthy marine environment. At the end of the day, people are part and parcel of the environment and attempting to exclude them from it is simply not possible.

Any new designation needs to be viable for its stakeholders. It also needs to be real, and not just another bureaucratic decision without any real ‘on-the-ground’ meaning. One current issue facing the Welsh marine environment is illegal scallop dredging within existing designated conservation areas where it is banned. This has got to be stopped before any further designations are put in place. Its continuation makes a mockery of existing designations as well as appearing to make future designations pointless. The failure to enforce existing regulations demeans the whole idea of having any form of ‘protection’.

Following this we should think about designating substantial areas of Welsh coastal waters as marine ‘parks’. Many areas are ‘special’ as can be seen from the current designations. Having dived all around Britain and Ireland, I can testify that we have some fabulous areas within the marine environment in Wales, many of which are currently relatively unspoiled and should remain that way.

Marine ‘parks’, which could be significantly larger areas than the Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones (HPMCZs) already suggested, could be established so that they have some similarities with terrestrial National Parks. Whilst designed to ensure that the areas are looked after and protected, they are still working areas but have more stringent requirements on the activities taking place within them. They could include zones classed as ‘sensitive areas’ for various reasons. For example, there might be zones where no anchoring should take place except in emergency. Marine ‘parks’ could also be regulated to ensure that local fisheries have an enhanced stake with the areas in which they operate. And there could even be ‘scientific’ zones used to establish areas subjected to minimal disturbance for research and study.

Such ‘park’ ideas might be radical although hardly more so than the suggested Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones.  However, if they were run with the input of all their stakeholders could be highly beneficial. I would personally prefer to see a better, integrated management of larger areas of the Welsh marine environment than high levels of isolated protection. Whilst these might apparently aspire to provide an ‘ecologically coherent network’, they are extremely unlikely to do so.

Doing nothing is not an option. The impetus of the conservation movement and increasing pressure on the marine environment, together with poor management of the seas in the past, means that measures need to be put into place in order to safeguard our marine environment for the future. The ‘stakeholders’ involved in the Welsh marine environment need to get together to find their common ground.

Paul Kay is based on the north Wales coast and operates as an underwater photographer throughout the UK and beyond. He recently shot the footage for the underwater episode of ‘Tir Cymru’, part of a ‘flagship’ series by Aden Productions commissioned by S4C.

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