Challenge to protect marine life around Welsh coast

Image caption,
The Act has been called a "fantastic opportunity" by environmental groups

Environmental groups have challenged the assembly government to make the most of new powers protecting marine life.

The Marine Act came into force exactly one year ago after years of campaigning for better marine management.

There are now calls for swift action in Wales to "safeguard our seas for the future" despite public sector cuts.

The assembly government said it welcomed the new powers and was committed to fulfilling its role.

The Marine and Coastal Access Act is a new approach to managing Wales and England's ocean environment, with Scotland having introduced its own similar legislation.

It includes Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones (HPMCZs) in Wales, a new planning system and reform of fisheries.

Wales already has protected areas around the coast, from the Menai Strait, Conwy Bay and Lleyn Peninsula to Cardigan Bay, Carmarthen Bay and Burry inlet.

Others include the islands of Skokholm and Skomer off Pembrokeshire - known as internationally imporant seabird reserves - and the Severn and Dee estuaries.

Wales Environment Link (WEL) - a network of environmental organisations including RSPB Cymru, WWF Cymru, Wildlife Trust Wales and the Marine Conservation Society - said the act should be "fully implemented".

Dr Iwan Ball, chair of WEL's marine working group, said: "The arrival of the long-awaited Marine Act last year was a historic occasion.

"Progress has been made over the last 12 months and Welsh ministers have gained important new powers, but now it is up to the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure there is adequate capacity and resources available for putting the Marine Act into action.

"This is a 'once in a generation' chance to manage our seas sustainably, to protect the marine environment and to allow it to recover and thrive again."

WEL said there was a need to ensure "this fantastic opportunity is not undermined" at a time of public sector cuts.

If successful, the next few years had the potential to be "the most important period in history for the management of Welsh seas".

Existing Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in the UK protect specific birds, marine species or habitats, but not marine biodiversity as a whole.

However, the Marine Act allows for new protected areas called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ).

In Wales, there will be a version called Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones, which would be protected from activities considered damaging.

An assembly government spokesperson said: "The Welsh Assembly Government intends to use an ecosystem approach to plan for Welsh seas, as set out in our 'A Living Wales' consultation.

"We intend to have the first national plan for Wales in place by 2012-13, and to have started our regional planning by then."

The assembly government is looking to consult on the details of its approach early next year, but will be "engaging with key stakeholders" during the next couple of months.

"The Welsh Assembly Government is committed to fulfilling its role in contributing towards a UK network of ecologically coherent marine protected areas, including the designation of Marine Conservation Zones in Welsh inshore waters," said the spokesperson.

"These sites together with existing protected areas and other management measures will help enhance biodiversity and promote healthy functioning and resilient marine ecosystems."

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