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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 March 2007, 05:11 GMT
Complexity of regulating the sea
By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC environment correspondent

The sea has shaped Britain in almost every imaginable way. For almost 1,000 years it has protected us from invasion, from becoming part of Napoleon or Hitler's Europe.

Brighton beach
Responsibility for the sea has grown piecemeal over many years

In the words of the 17th century jurist, Lord Coventry: "The dominion of the sea, as it is an ancient and undoubted right of the crown of England, so it is the best security of the land - The wooden walls [the country's sea fleet] are the best walls of this kingdom."

Angry seas, lashing at the rocks from the Lizard to Peterhead, have helped form the jagged rocks and sandy inlets that in turn provide habitats for British sealife.

Turquoise inland waters and dark green oceans have provided a wealth of food - from crabs, mussels and other shellfish inland, to deep sea fish that were once the staples of a fish and chip supper.

And the seas have lifted our spirits - whether it was looking back along the majestic sweep of the Gower from a clifftop walk on a sparkling summer's day, or a walk along the prom with an ice cream and a "kiss me quick" hat in Blackpool or Skegness.

But in return, we have treated our seas with something more akin to contempt than respect.

We have over-exploited her fragile resources, at one time spewing raw sewage into those turquoise inland waters, and allowing a host of overlapping interests to be responsible for the planning of the sea-bed.

And now, increasingly, the sea is a battleground once again - not this time repelling invading forces, but between renewable energy companies, dredging firms, conservationists and fishermen.

'Clear system'

A Marine Bill, to create a single regulatory authority for all aspects of inland waters, was a government manifesto commitment in 2005, and the apparent delay in formulating legislation had been criticised by business and environmental groups alike, all of whom had been calling for years for a clear system for deciding who gets priority on the ocean floor.

Responsibility for coastal waters has grown up, piecemeal, over hundreds of years. The Queen has had a prerogative right to the bounty of inland waters, and that right is now managed by the Crown Estate.

It is the Crown Estate which owns virtually the entire seabed out to the 12 nautical mile territorial limit, including the rights to explore and utilise the natural resources of the UK Continental Shelf (excluding oil, gas and coal).

The Cabinet now needs to show its environmental agenda extends to our seas
Melissa Moore
Marine Conservation Society

More recently the Energy Act 2004 vested rights to the Crown Estate to licence the generation of renewable energy on the continental shelf within the Renewable Energy Zone out to 200 nautical miles - although it should be pointed out that the revenues no longer go to the Queen.

"If you want to apply to build an offshore wind farm, at present the system is hugely complicated," says Sharon Thompson from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who have had a keen interest in the White Paper because of the host of British birdlife that depends on the sea.

"Not only do you have to lease land from the Crown Estates, you also have to get a license from the DTI, and then Defra have to do an environmental impact assessment.

"What this White Paper is proposing looks pretty positive to us - to have one organisation responsible for planning, licensing, fisheries and enforcement."

'Marine law'

"In the same way that the Climate Change Bill is the first legislation of its kind in the world, so the Marine Bill would give the UK the first co-ordinated marine law in the world." says the Environment Minister, Ben Bradshaw.

Fishermen at Peterhead, Scotland
There are calls in Scotland for its own Marine Bill
"All the historic regulatory authorities will be merged into one regulatory body, which will have powers of planning and protection.

"It will provide a simplified and strategic approach to deciding what goes where in the sea. It will also simplify the process of getting offshore windfarms agreed."

There appears to be some question, however, about how far out to sea this proposed Bill will cover.

Beyond our inshore, 12 nautical mile limit there are European laws that cover Britain's seas - for example, the Common Fisheries Policy - and it's unclear at present how this new Marine Bill might fit into it.

Special protection

The government is taking the opportunity of the Marine Bill to create eight new areas of special protection that ministers are required to protect under the EU Habitats Directive, as they are of European importance.

But Melissa Moore, senior policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society, says the key part of the White Paper is the government's intention to also introduce highly-protected designated areas of national importance, which sometimes do not get European protection.

For example Scottish sea lochs - there are lots of similar habitats in Scandinavia, so they are not of European importance, but not many in Britain.

There should also, she says, be a category of highly-protected marine reserves - areas of the sea where all damaging or potentially damaging activities are excluded.

At present, she says, the UK falls far behind international action on this issue with only one tiny area (at Lundy Island - 3.3 sq km) covering 0.002% of our inshore waters fully protected.

But she is keen to see the government getting a move on in translating this policy White Paper into legislative action.

"We are pleased that we are one step closer to a Marine Bill for our oft-neglected seas," she said.

"The Cabinet now needs to show its environmental agenda extends to our seas and allocate a slot for the Marine Bill in the next parliamentary session."

Ministers admit that this could be one of the most tricky issues.

The first thing we would want to do is get rid of the current cluttered governance of Scotland's seas
Richard Lochhead
Marine policy is a highly devolved issue, and, with Scottish fishermen expressing alarm at some of what they see as the extreme environmental parts of the proposed bill, government sources say the Scottish elections in May could put paid to the bill seeing the light of the Westminster day this year.

"We're in favour of streamlining marine legislation, but would prefer to do it from Edinburgh." says Richard Lochhead, the SNP shadow minister for environmental, rural and energy matters.

"We have nearly two-thirds of the UK's coastline, a quarter of Europe's seas, and two-thirds of the UK fishing industry, but we find that the government in London has more say than we do."

"We would be asking for far more devolved powers. The first thing we would want to do is get rid of the current cluttered governance of Scotland's seas. There are 85 pieces of legislation.

"But our Marine Bill would not necessarily have the same emphasis as any proposed London legislation. We want a Scottish Marine Bill that's tailored to Scotland's needs.

"Our fishing industry is 20 times more important to our economy than the UK's, so that would be reflected in the Bill."

It appears everyone wants a change from the current, cluttered status quo. But the solution could be as complex as the seas themselves.

Marine bill to 'protect UK seas'
15 Mar 07 |  Science/Nature
UK seas 'in peril' - says report
01 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature

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