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Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill

26th October 2001

It is surprising that, as an island nation surrounded by marine life, we have paid so little attention to the sea.

1.24 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I support the Bill and join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on promoting it.

It is surprising that, as an island nation surrounded by marine life, we have paid so little attention to the sea. The sea is a place of work in terms of fishing and energy, and has historically denoted our boundaries and signified our power. Although Britannia ruled the waves, we spent little time considering what is beneath them. Perhaps that is because we are not blessed with warm climates, and the cold waters put people off trying to understand the sea.

Clearly, there is a new appreciation of marine life, the beauty of our environment, the dangers of pollution and the need for a proper environmental balance. On land, much thought has already gone into achieving such a balance and weighing up the rights of industry and those of local people and visitors. The balance between historical and future use has also been considered. However, that cannot be said about our marine environment.

The existing legislative framework is haphazard. There is no shortage of laws to govern activities on our seas: they include legislation on merchant shipping, water resources, water industries and fisheries, and European regulations and various treaties. However, they tend to reflect effects on the marine industries rather than marine life. Indeed, the complexity of our laws often hinders the ability to introduce policies in favour of marine life.

There is therefore a need for legal and policy frameworks to be directed at the protection of habitats and species. However, they need to balance environmental needs, to cater to the needs of industry and those of leisure and to provide a strategic and consistent approach, which has been lacking in the past.

Our thinking about the sea is too disjointed. There have been many significant and worthy projects to clean up the nation's beaches. That has resulted in many excellent beaches, but most of the efforts have been directed at cleaning up the mess from the sea rather than considering the reasons for it. That is a good example of lack of strategy and joined-up thinking.

Debates about fishing policies are also often disjointed. We argue with our neighbouring countries about who has rights over our fish, and we highlight the genuine plight of our fishermen, but we say little about why fish stocks are depleted. We need a framework whereby we can better understand our fish habitats and form our policies in the context of a proper understanding of the environment in which fishing takes place. We can thus prioritise and balance the interests of consumers, fishermen and the environment.

As on land, conservation at sea is about not only protecting beautiful sites but understanding the environment so that we can make proper choices about development. Unlike the sea, little is natural about our land environment. Fields and hedgerows are man's invention, and foxes have to be controlled because we have chickens and lambs. The environment that we enjoy has been moulded over the centuries. As we develop in different ways, our views about the sort of environment that we want have changed. We have developed a regulatory environment to provide a framework for that.

That has not happened in the marine world. It could be said that that was because the sea was inaccessible, but that would undermine the beauty and value of the vast range of habitats and species that exist in our marine environments. I shall not argue in favour of any specific sort of marine environment or weigh up the value of different sorts of habitats or species. However, we must create the regulatory environment for doing that. Indeed, in some local marine environments the national interest may better be served by the presence of oil and gas industries or by carrying out exploration, but that is not the case in many areas. Some areas will be suitable for touristic development of the sea from an environmental point of view, and some will be unsuitable. There needs to be a regulatory environment for the enforcement of policy decisions that also allows the proper consideration of the issues.

The key will be adaptability, which will be even more necessary at sea than on land. For instance, a suitable place to allow fishing this year may not be suitable next year, fish being more transient than, say, cattle. The same point could be used to show that there is a need better to understand the fish habitats around our shores so that we can strategically evaluate fishing in environmental terms.

It is also important to consider the marine environment, how it relates to current sea industries, such as shipping, fishing, oil and gas, and how it relates to the industries of the future. Many hon. Members have referred to that aspect.

Mr. Pound: Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of marine fauna, will he join me in paying tribute to the promoter of the Bill for introducing for the first time in the House a discussion of the worm-like Enteropneusta of the phylum hemichordata, commonly known as the sea squirt? For the first time we have had a sensible discussion on this simple but pleasant creature, which is noted in biology primarily for having undiscernible gonads. We have been educated by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall).

Mr. Djanogly: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has been a pleasure to hear about sea squirts. I admit to knowing very little about them before this debate.

One of the great impending debates for the House and the nation in the next few years is the future of our energy policy, which could involve harnessing wave or wind energy. Either of those sources of energy used at sea will have important official, aesthetic and habitat implications for the environment of the area in which they are sited, as has been discussed.

It would be preferable to have a clear strategic view of where hundreds, possibly thousands, of windmills are to be positioned, rather than to bumble through on a one-off application basis, which would lack consistency. An effective strategy could save huge costs, would reduce inconsistencies and enable the benefits and disadvantages to be considered on a balanced basis. It should not be assumed that having a proper regulatory framework would work to the disadvantage of sea industries, or the tourism industry.

Linda Gilroy: Would the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that those interested in marine conservation should be able to accommodate those needs, because climate has a significant impact on our use of energy and on the health of the seas, and of plankton in particular? It would be imperative for us to find such accommodation, and that should not be a difficulty.

Mr. Djanogly: I agree with the hon. Lady. That is another reason why adaptability will be important-as the hon. Lady said, climates affect the sea.

The Bill could also be used to encourage marine-related tourism and to develop educational facilities, which are currently significantly underdeveloped in Britain compared with other countries. At the moment, most consideration goes into securing rare habitats and species, but the emphasis needs to be changed so that we also encourage the study and enjoyment of the many excellent habitats that are currently thriving but about which we know relatively little because not much data are available.

Where we have identified species or habitats that are considered to be of such national importance that they should be protected, it is necessary that the power exists to enforce that policy if it is to work. Again, that will require flexibility because of the significant variations in habitat movement, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) has said, and seasonal changes that exist in the sea. The relevant statutory conservation agencies should be able to implement management schemes on a site-by-site basis.

As we are an island nation, the sea is the key part of our national psyche. We should value it as an important part of our environment, and the Bill should provide the mechanism for us to give marine conservation the status that it requires and deserves.

1.35 pm

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