Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 10:10 UK

Sea scheme is fishing for answers

By Adrian Campbell
BBC South West Environment Correspondent

Fishing trawler
Fishing is worth more than 30m to two Devon ports alone

Devon and Cornwall are to be included in a project which is seeking a radical approach to the problems of protecting seas from environmental threats.

The fishing industry is worth millions of pounds a year to the counties.

In 2007, the port of Brixham in Devon alone earned more than £20m from fishing. Plymouth earned more than £11m.

But across Europe there has been a growing recognition among politicians that the way we fish is no longer sustainable.

Marine biodiversity

New legislation, the Marine Bill, requires the establishment of a network of Marine Conservation Zones where wildlife and habitat are protected, much like our national parks on land.

The aim is to safeguard and encourage the recovery of marine biodiversity, and to help ensure the long-term sustainability of marine resources in the region.

The South West of England looks set to be the first part of the country to try out a very different approach to conservation.

The region has a huge coastline and all manner of boats, anglers and divers with opinions about how to manage the sea.

A project called Finding Sanctuary has the difficult task of trying to implement some of the Marine Bill's aims.

It brings together a wide cross-section of sea-users and interest groups so they can explore where Marine Conservation Zones could be located, identify possible conflicts and try and find ways of working around them.

Environmentalists say we have reached the point when fish stocks and the sea bed close to our shores must be protected.

Most people now agree we need a better balance between what we consume and what we protect.

Quotas criticised

In the past, the European Union has been criticised for allowing a quota system which has allowed fish to be dumped at sea. But by 2012 things really do look set to change and it is Europe which is driving that change.

The UK is leading the way in Europe by taking steps to protect and restore marine wildlife and habitats.

Finding Sanctuary has already been working for months, creating maps of all the data that exists for the sea around the South West.

Finding Sanctuary booklet
The Finding Sanctuary project is helping implement the Marine Bill

The project team is quizzing fishermen, anglers and other users of the sea to find out where they actually go and what they do there.

The aim is to properly map the ecology and human use of the sea so that Marine Conservation Zones can be planned in a way that has least impact on those who use the sea, and at the same time has the most benefits for nature conservation.

Limited conservation measures have already had some success around the tiny island of Lundy in North Devon.

Sea conservation is a hugely controversial subject, but other parts of the European Union are also having to face up to similar challenges.

Just over the English Channel in Brittany they have already had some success establishing a marine park where conservation targets are being set.

Closing off fishing grounds will never be popular with fishermen but environmentalists say we can no longer take the sea for granted.

Finding Sanctuary provides the most significant opportunity for marine conservation there has ever been in the South West.

Its success relies on people working together to reach consensus about how we are going to protect this very special resource.

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