Thursday, 4 April 2013

Marine Conservation Zones - Betrayal or Blessing?

by Richard Neale

Porth Colmon, Llyn.  This is where I met Sion Williams for
my 'reality check' (see article)

Wales has some of the most highly protected coastal waters in the world.  With 37% of our seas designated Marine Protected Areas (MPA) we can be confident that our marine habitats are well looked after. 

Or can we?

Last year, the Wales Government’s agency that looks after our MPAs, the Countryside Council for Wales, admitted that “the arrangements…are not fit to achieve [the] stated aims of conserving rare, threatened and representative species and habitats”.

At about the same time, the government launched its consultation on the creation of new Marine Conservation Zones.  Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of its most unpopular and divisive proposals. The problem was that the proposed MCZs would be highly protected, meaning that they would be ‘no-take zones’ with a whole range of activities, including mooring a boat or recreational fishing banned. 

To its credit, the Government went back to the drawing board and I now find myself on its MCZ Stakeholder Focus Group, along with a good-natured but incredibly diverse group of representatives from all aspects of marine interests.  At a recent meeting we got a bit bogged down with the science.  Looking out of the window at the sun on Aberystwyth bay, I decided that it was time to take a reality check.

Sion Williams, checking the first of his
whelk pots
And that is how I came to be climbing on board a small commercial fishing boat amongst the slippery rocks and seaweed of the tiny cove of Porth Colmon on the north coast of the Llŷn peninsula.  Its skipper, Siôn Williams, powered up the engines and soon we were travelling at speed towards his whelk pots.  Talking in the shelter of the small wheelhouse, I started to build up a picture of Siôn’s working life.

Where I saw an expanse of featureless sea, he used a mental map – built up from several generations of trial and error – to see mountain ranges of submerged reefs surrounded by acres of gravelly sand.  His patch is nearly ten miles long by a couple of miles wide and, in the height of summer, he goes around 120 whelk pots – and a similar number of lobster pots – every day that the weather will let him.

We arrived at the first of his buoys and I was sent to the stern to be out the way, where I watched him working.  What amazed me was that he seemed to be doing everything at once – all in a single uninterrupted and seemingly backbreaking movement: operating the winch, hauling up the pots, shaking out the whelks, adjusting the orientation of the boat, preparing the bait, bagging and stacking the catch…

Heading off to the more turbulent waters near the cliffs to check his lobster pots, I had time to ask Siôn what he thought of the MCZ proposals.

Checking the carapace size of a lobster (this one's too small
and will be returned to the sea).  Sion also voluntarily carries
out other conservation measures to protect catch stocks for
the future.
Ro’n i’n teimlo fod fi wedi cael fy mradychu…"

"It felt like a betrayal.  I was already working with the CCW on conservation measures; I’d started to help with research projects studying the health of marine habitats and I’d got myself accredited as a responsible wildlife-watching operator.  Then suddenly I hear that half my area may be closed to me.  It would have put me out of business.”

Later, as we headed for shore, he explained that despite this experience, he was not against smaller parts of his area becoming no-take zones, if it could be shown how that would benefit wildlife.  He was also passionate about the need for stricter policing of the few unscrupulous members of the fishing fraternity.

Back on dry land, as I warmed myself with a flask of tea, I pondered what I’d learnt from my brief excursion. 

I now realise that marine conservation policies can’t be made in committee rooms alone, and although not all fishermen are as committed to conservation as Siôn, we have to involve them if we’re going to protect our seas.  I also realise that the proposals had gone too far, too fast. 

I still believe that in some special places we should apply the ultimate protection of MCZ status.  But before we do that, we need to sort out the management of those existing MPAs that, by the Governments own admission, falls short of what’s required.

Thanks to Welsh Coast Living Magazine for use of this article, published in its April edition.

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