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Saving the sea?

A dogfish swimming under the English Channel
There are landscapes beneath the sea to rival landscapes like the North Downs.

By Chris Bennett
BBC Sussex

Underneath the grey waters of the English channel, a sort of revolution in wildlife protection is on its way.

The concept - vast underwater reserves off the Sussex coast, designed to protect the fifty per cent of British wildlife that lives under the sea.

Join divers under the English Channel as work starts on developing a 'national park' of the sea.

Marine Conservation Zones are one of the hottest topics for naturalists across Sussex today.

"They are a tried and tested means of safeguarding important habitats and wildlife. MPAs protect the wildlife within their boundaries and allow nature to recover and thrive," said Dr Lissa Goodwin, Living Seas Officer of the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

The concept is a sort of national park of the sea, with key zones where legislation protects fish, birds, plant life and geology. It comes as part of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which is now on its way to the Lords.

It is the question of where those zones should be - and what limitations they should impose on others - that injects potential tension into the idea.

there is nothing pre-conceived about how the sites will be selected
Sue Wells - Balanced Seas

Get an idea of the South East underwater landscape here.

Complex task

The job of achieving agreement is complex. Many have a claim upon the sea. Shipping lines, wind farm developers and fishermen, to name just a few, have to make a living from the waters of the English Channel.

"There is a huge nervousness about it but there is nothing pre-conceived about how the sites will be selected," said Sue Wells, project manager for Balanced Seas.

She has the task of putting together a group representing "anyone who has an interest in the sea,". Widespread consultation with all the interested - and sometimes competing - groups is a key part of that.

A map showing the area of sea being considered for new Marine Conservation Zones.
Balanced Seas are looking at the whole of the area marked with green stripes. (C) Natural England

"What's different about this is that there is a way that people can sit around the table and talk," she said.

That talking starts at the end of November, when meetings across the South East will set up groups of stakeholders who will look at the sensitive areas off the coast and decide what, if anything, should be done to extend their protection.

Fair welcome

So far, from many interested groups, there has been a fair welcome for the concept. Last June a survey by the Co-op found that 83 per cent of 360,000 customers surveyed supported the idea of marine reserves.

For business, the Seabed User and Development Group , which represents businesses like ports, aggregate firms and windpower suppliers, has said it "wholeheartedly support the principles " of the Bill.

Coastal Path

Back on shore, there's another part of the bill that has proved perhaps more controversial. It plans the establishment of a coastal path that will go all the way around the UK.

A map showing where there is no public access along the Sussex coast.
Red areas show where there is no public access along the Sussex coast. (C) Natural England.

A recent survey by Natural England showed that in the South East - on the coast from Yarmouth in Hamsphire to Gravesend in Kent - around 37 per cent was not publicly accessible.

To people like the Ramblers Association, that's a long-held dream. "We are really happy with it. A continued coastal path is what we have been pushing for," said a spokesperson.

But to coastal landowners, it's not as palatable. The Country Land and Business Association say only eight per cent of the coast is inaccessible and question whether the legislation is justified.

"Research shows what the public really wants is for the existing access to be enhanced," said CLA President Henry Aubrey-Fletcher.

If the Marine Bill becomes law, then the first Marine Protection Zones could be in place by December 2012.





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