MPs criticise slow progress on marine zones

Coast near Eastbourne MPs say the project is losing sight of its original vision

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MPs have criticised the government for dragging its feet over plans to create zones to protect wildlife in the seas.

A coalition of conservationists, anglers, fishermen and leisure sailors proposed 127 Marine Conservation Zones.

The government has consulted on just 31 of these MCZs, and MPs on the Science and Technology Committee say sites are being degraded by the delay.

Ministers say the speed of marine protection is being slowed by complexity and cost.

It is more than three years since the principle of MCZs was enshrined in the Marine Act with cross-party support.

The MPs say controversy over the zones has increased over that period and the project is losing sight of its original vision.

The chair, Andrew Miller, said: "The Government is currently letting the project flounder while sensitive environments are further degraded and the industry is subjected to further uncertainty.

"It is not clear why some areas have been selected (for protection) and others not. It seems the Government has shifted the goalposts regarding the level of scientific evidence needed to support Marine Conservation Zone designation.

"Site selection should be based on the best available evidence - the selection process should not be stalled by an unattainable threshold for certainty.

This echoes the concern of conservation groups who say that some of the proposed zones rejected by Defra on the grounds of insufficient evidence have compelling reasons to be protected.

Mr Miller said: "The Minister must end the uncertainty and set out a clear timetable to designate the zones with a firm commitment to an end date by which the protected areas will be established."

He also warned that strategic marine science was being undermined by cash shortages.

The government will formally respond to the committee later. It will also publish its findings on the consultation of the first round of proposed MCZs.

The environment minister Richard Benyon told the committee: "This is an expensive process for Government. We have had to find more money to make sure that the evidence is robust. Am I conscious of cost? Yes, absolutely.

"It would be quite wrong of me not to be. (But) we are learning from this process in a way that means that we can do the rest perhaps quicker and will be able to take forward more sites in the next round."

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