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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 December 2007, 00:39 GMT
Marine protection plan unveiled
Cod, BBC
Protected areas could help to regenerate fish stocks
Public consultation has begun on proposals to extend protection for marine life around Britain.

Seven areas, totalling 10,000sq km (4,000sq miles) of sea, have been earmarked as sites for the UK's first offshore Special Areas of Conservation.

They include habitats of important sea life, such as sandbanks, sand volcanoes and cold water coral reefs, found in the seas surrounding the UK.

Currently, only coastal and inshore areas are protected.

The government says areas rich in wildlife further out to sea face a different kind of threat.

Jonathan Shaw, the minister for marine, landscape and rural affairs, said: "The UK has one of the richest marine environments in the world.

"We want to bring conservation standards at sea up to the level of those that we have on land, to give greater protection to sea life.

We really welcome this; it is a definite step forward
Dr Simon Walmsley, WWF-UK

"I want to see a network of marine protected areas around the UK by 2012, and these seven new proposed offshore areas would be a big part of that."

The sites will be presented to the European Commission in September 2008.

Included sites

The projected conservation areas include the Darwin Mounds, an exceptional cold water coral reef to the north-west of Scotland, and the Scanner and Braemar Pockmarks in the North Sea where methane seeps from the sea floor, sustaining communities of worms and other organisms.

Around 380 organisations will be contacted for their views on these proposals, but comments from any interested parties are welcome.

Map of marine conservation areas

Charlotte Johnston, the Marine Site and Strategy Team Leader at the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), told BBC News: "We have attempted to include all stakeholders in this consultation, such as sea users, conservation organisations and offshore government departments."

Environmental groups have campaigned for a move like this for more than five years.

Dr Simon Walmsley, head of marine programmes at the conservation group WWF-UK, welcomed the news.

However, he said he was concerned over the time it had taken to make the announcement and urged the government to meet its 2012 deadline.

He also said he was anxious about how the sites had been selected and in particular why areas like Dogger Bank in the North Sea, an important spawning ground for fish and dolphins, had not been recommended for protection.

Ms Johnston said the area had not been included "as more time is required for the science to establish where the site boundary needs to lie".

Level of protection

Dr Walmsley also expressed concern over what level of protection the sites would have.

"Will any become highly protected marine reserves where no level of activity can happen and there is a no-take policy?" he asked.

Protected areas can bring benefits to the fishing industry by creating places where young fish can grow. The UK's only "no-take zone" around the Isle of Lundy has brought local shellfish populations back from their overfished state.

The JNCC decision, to determine if a marine industry activity will be permitted, depends on the features at the site, the level of protection required and the type of activity.

Ms Johnston said: "After an appropriate assessment, if it is likely the development will have significant adverse effects on the habitat then it will not be permitted, except on the grounds of overriding public interest."

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