Page last updated at 17:07 GMT, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Can Marine Bill make a difference?

By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Studland Beach (BBC)
Other stunning views are found below the sea, say conservationists

The Marine Bill is set to become law.

According to the government, it will be the first legislation of its kind in the world, creating a network of protected zones around our coastal waters.

There will also be, for the first time, a continuous path around the coast of England.

I travelled to Studland Bay, in Dorset, to look at one place that could be affected by the legislation.

The sea is tinted silver grey with the first smudges of lilac appearing over the horizon. Seagulls keen overhead.

We have an amazingly diverse coastal environment - not just seahorses but mussel beds, rocky areas - and they all need protection
Melissa Moore, Marine Conservation Society

The white cliffs and sandy beaches of Studland attract thousands of visitors every year for relaxation and recreation.

But conservationists say some of the most precious and stunning views are hidden under the sea.

For these coastal waters are some of the few in the country that are home to breeding seahorses. They use the sea grasses for their nurseries.

But there is no guarantee these little creatures will get protection under the new law.

It will be two years before a decision is made on which areas, and how many of them, will form the marine conservation zones. Some campaigners say this could allow the government to do the smallest amount possible to protect England's waters.

So can this legislation make a difference?

"It's got to," says Melissa Moore from the Marine Conservation Society.

"We have an amazingly diverse coastal environment - not just seahorses but mussel beds, rocky areas - and they all need protection."

Risk to industry?

Other conservationists are concerned at the lack of detail in the bill.

"The government's often taken the path of least resistance on conservation measures," said one.

"Will they really tell the fishermen that there might be 30% of waters they can no longer fish in?"

For their part, the fishermen say, the new law could extinguish an industry that's already in decline in many parts of the country.

Alan Lander, from the Swanage Fishermens' Association, is unconvinced about the conservation arguments.

"My family have been fishing here for 200 years", he says.

"If we had not conserved the stocks, we wouldn't have anything left to catch. I wish people would talk to the fishermen more."

Alan himself fished for crab and lobster for 50 years, and his son and grandson have taken over. He says he doesn't miss it; the red tape is now overwhelming.

The coastal access path is not without its controversies. While walkers' groups say it will finally make some of the loveliest views in England accessible, some landowners are worried the law will not protect them adequately.

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