Marine life ~ time overdue to protect and defend.

5691339791_c01097ca5f_bGinny Battson © 2011

Last weekend’s announcement that 23 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) are to be established around UK seas is a small step towards the full protections we ought to be affording our living oceans and coastal habitats. The sum total of 50 zones now currently designated, however, are still minimal compared to the targets set via the government’s own scientific advice. And then there is the question of enforcement, of course.

In 2012, the Tory-led coalition with the LibDems, at an apparent cost of £8 million, consulted on on a total of 127 MCZs and 65 “reference areas” that would have provided complete protection from fishing. 100 MCZs and the 65 reference areas were dropped! And I suspect, in large part, due to strident objection from the ‘stakeholder’ fishing lobby.

Regardless, the MCZs managed individually are not the Marine Reserves that one might imagine. They will still be subject to some of the global human interferences that have led to around a halving of the wildlife in the seas that existed in 1970 (World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London Report). The main caveat granted is that these zones should not be worsened in state, but there’s no absolute legal imperative for them to improve. Yet it’s in the improvements where we’ll see the true recovery so desperately needed.

Into the mix, we also have to understand a sharp reality ~ species have been in decline for a very long time. Reports can be deceiving in that they so commonly fall prey to shifting baselines syndrome. We underestimate losses that have occurred way before any chosen certain date from which populations are now measured.

Our UK marine and coastal life has been massively hit by human economic activity such as intensive, industrialised fishing (plus perils of ghost gear), and fish farming. Time is overdue for an increase in fully protected Marine Reserves.

“What is a marine reserve?
Marine reserves are a type of MPA that are fully protected from all extractive and potentially damaging activities, such as fishing, dredging, aquaculture and mining. Research, education and some non-extractive leisure activities may be permitted within marine reserves (at managed levels and with mitigation measures in place) where compatible with site protection needs. Marine reserves are sometimes referred to as ‘no-take areas’.” Marine Reserves Coalition 

Living in New Zealand for a while, I was fortunate to visit some of their pioneering No Take Zones. Interestingly, in the course of my time there, I also met with a couple of marine biologists, who seemed pretty confident their NTZs were realistically too small to be effective in restoring the nation’s sea life. Never-the-less, the results of the protections in force (44 marine reserves in New Zealand’s territorial waters, which are managed by Department of Conservation), are there to be seen, delivering “a wide range of benefits to science, conservation and general management.” B Ballantine.  If the fishing lobby actually gains from protecting these areas, why do so many frequently object? I suspect the answer is more to do with fear of short-term losses than evidence, and this is a terrible shame.

Also in New Zealand, Māori customary fishing rights have been asserted, with the Ministry of Fisheries together with iwi (tribes) working to create reserves known as mātaitai and taiapure. The iwi manage non-commercial fishing by making by-laws for these reserves which apply to all. Generally, commercial fishing is prohibited within mātaitai. By 2012, 25 mātaitai had been created, covering 32,200 hectares. There are ongoing surveys such as the one conducted by The University of Otago at Akaroa taiapure and Te Whaka a Te Wera mataitai, to measure outcomes and it will be interesting to follow the results.

Meanwhile, in Wales, after the debacle concerning the public consultation into scallop dredging in the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation, a new consultation with ‘stakeholders’ has been opened up in Wales for 6 SACs and SPAs  (for the purpose of protecting Harbour Porpoise and a ‘number of species of seabirds’). These are again different from MCZs though, according to a legal briefing by Bond Dickinson LLP commercial law form, there are some further plans outlined for offshore waters (more than 12 nautical miles offshore).

“Under the Wales Bill, marine conservation will be devolved. It will therefore fall to the Welsh government to consider suitable provision of MCZs in their offshore waters as part of their ongoing programme to designate MCZs at the following sites: Celtic Deep, East of Celtic Deep, Mid St George’s Channel, North of Celtic Deep and North St George’s Channel. Before a formal consultation is issued Defra will work closely with local and national stakeholders until Autumn 2016. Defra then intends to select sites for formal consultation in 2017, and anticipates making designations in 2018.”

In 2013, let us not forget, the Welsh Assembly abandoned MCZ proposals, again, little doubt, because of a strident sector of the fishing lobby. Wales only has one official fully protected Reserve ~ Skomer. It’s not enough.

According to the Marine Reserves Coalition, in 2010 the 193 countries that are Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity committed to designating at least 10% of the global marine environment as MPZs (not Reserves, I’ll add), by 2020. Progress is way too slow and it’s unlikely that 10% will be achieved by 2020.

Professor Callum Roberts, marine conservationist at York University and author of Ocean of Life: How our Seas Are Changing, argues that unless we change policy, all that will be left of our seas would be ‘mud and worms’.

“We need more zones because the network we have is far from complete….The reality is that despite the 50 MCZs which are now in place, the UK’s rich marine life still has very little protection. That may sound paradoxical, but six years after the Marine Act was passed, MCZs are still paper parks. They have no management at all, so life within them remains unprotected. They will be worse than useless, giving the illusion of protection where none is present. The 65 reference areas, the one bit of the network which was really critical, were dropped and while the UK is giving full protection from fishing to huge areas of our overseas territories in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, we urgently need the same high levels of protection in our home waters.” Prof. C. Roberts.

It’s high time the public were more aware of this ongoing problem and encouraged to actively engage in fighting for more fully protected marine reserves and recommended linked reference areas with better protections afforded, in the face of vested, short-term economic interests.

After all, life in the oceans is a vital, non-negotiable part in the maintaining of Earth’s one biosphere. If we abandon it, we abandon ourselves and everything else to boot.

For more information, please visit Please do get involved in consultations, or contact your local politicians so they know how important these protections are to you.

My early nature connection; home, play and special mentors

Please find my latest blog as guest writer for key nature website Nearby Wild, an initiative dedicated to celebrating and enhancing local wildlife near to where we live.

On my own early nature connection and the significance of Mentors

Monknash and the Anthropocene


I am at Monknash SSSI on the South Wales coast, protected for its abundance of special geology and rare species. A handful of humans and our canine companions are wandering the beach towards Cwm Marcross, beneath magnificent Liassic cliffs just West of Nash Point. We are all separate in our own worlds, though sharing the common experience of listening to the cackling of fulmars on narrow ledges and tracing our way along the shore. The steep, stratified layers of the cliffs are a rhythmic repetition of limestone and mudstone, and formed as a late Triassic desert was inundated by ocean. Molluscan faunas found here by paleontologists have provided a surprisingly detailed record of environmental history, particularly in rarer tufa limestone deposits. They mark the Boreal/Atlantic climatic transition around 8,000 years ago, when rising global temperatures meant further retreat of ice to the North and a rising sea.

At that point in time, Mesolithic humans, dark skinned hunter-gatherers along with, perhaps, a few early settlers, populated what we now describe as Britain only sparsely. The sea had begun to inundate the good hunting grounds of the marshes, lakes and rivers of Doggerland, disconnecting us from mainland Europe. The Welsh shoreline had extended in plains out beyond what we see now as shore, into the Severn Sea (or in Welsh, Môr Hafren). These flatlands were also being swallowed by rising water levels. The newly forming coast would have provided an important source of marine food for early tribal groups, evidenced by middens of cockle and oyster shells discovered in estuarine zones. The temperate post-glacial climate would have encouraged more people to migrate and succeed.

Some 3,500 years before that, at the end of the last Ice Age, marks the beginning of what the International Commission on Stratigraphy accept as the beginning of the Holocene epoch, the geological time period in which we now exist. Climate has been fairly stable over the Holocene, but things are changing rapidly.


As one stands now between the cliffs and the shoreline, it’s as if time is materially trapped in the strata. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the wind, rain and sea recounting narratives of antiquity, released in little whisps around you. There’s evidence here of glacial retreat, lost ecologies of marsh and woodland communities instead of the hinterland of farms we see today. And there are ancient human stories too, no doubt, the joys and struggles of life, to which I think we still may relate.

Here on the edge of things, magic still dwells, as ever.


Today, intricate honeycomb worm reefs (Sabellaria alveolata), smother wave-cut platforms, thrusting out into long shore drift when tides are low. Their brown planes intersect the water with plumes of sea-spray, the final sigh of waves that may have begun thousands of miles away in the Atlantic Ocean. These are great hiding places for many other intertidal species, part of the reason they are formerly protected from human interference by Law.



It’s a wonder these reefs aren’t smashed to bits by erosion. But they remain firmly in tact, for now, the colonies of tiny worms resiliently rebuilding their feeding tubes with sand particles and shell remains at every chance.

Sadly, if you look closely, you’ll see brightly coloured plastic rings, toys (some even with faces), bottles, caps and inexplicable mouldings that have become entwined deep in the honeycomb. I feed my hand into the reef to pull a few out, and fail. I can’t damage the reef. They are cemented, ensconced behind the living colonies, leeching out their chemicals as they slowly break down with unquantifiable consequences. It’s as if only another epoch of sea erosion and the loss of the worms themselves would ever see them gone.

Moreover, I look around me and imagine worse to come. Oceanographers are now clear that anthropogenic climate change will bring the seas in higher and harder across these shores. More intense storms will wither the roots of all the rare life I observe today. The intertidal ecological zones will become permanently submerged and the cliffs will fall more rapidly back into the high energy waves that batter their foundations. Species will have to adapt as best they can.

I feel ashamed of my own species. It’s all so unnecessary.


In altogether different parts of our Earth’s biosphere, as part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, there are a number of academics scattered in universities worldwide who call themselves the Working Group on the Anthropocene. Anthropocene is a term first used by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to delineate a ‘present time interval’, yet to be fully sanctioned or determined, in which many geologically conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activity. The evidence, however, is mounting.

The Group plans to assemble later this year to decide whether the Anthropocene is to be ‘set in stone’. The case will be reviewed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy and, if approved, the new epoch will have to be ratified by the International Union of Geological Sciences before formal adoption.

A paper published recently in Science provides further evidence of human impacts upon the lithosphere, the rigid outer part of our planet Earth. Various biogeochemical cycles have ensured our pollutants have reached far and wide. The plastic I find trapped today in the honeycomb worm reefs are only what I can see with my eyes. There are far more profound changes occurring beyond my senses that not only future geologists thousands of years from now (indeed, if our species has rallied), might discover in core samples and geochemical surveys, but modern Earth scientists are already uncovering.

It appears there are indicators in recent lake sediments in Greenland, which distinguish them from the rest of the Holocene epoch,

“The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete, coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century.”


“unprecedented combinations of plastics, fly ash, radionuclides, metals, pesticides, reactive nitrogen, and consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. In this sediment core from west Greenland (69˚03’N, 49˚54’W), glacier retreat due to climate warming has resulted in an abrupt stratigraphic transition from proglacial sediments to nonglacial organic matter, effectively demarcating the onset of the Anthropocene.”

Salutary stuff. There’s still much debate about the precise point in time the Anthropocene is supposed to have begun. Some argue it should be traced back to the Neolithic conversion from human hunter-gathering to farming, whilst others look to the more recent Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the fossil fuel era and greenhouse gas emissions. The Great Acceleration” since the 1950s, a period of exponential economic growth and consumption of resources, looks to be a prime candidate, and even the dropping of the first nuclear bomb in New Mexico 1945 has been suggested. The ‘Subatlantic’ is the current climatic age of the Holocene. It started at about 2,500 years ago, but the data sets will surely no longer be the norm as we move forward in time. Even in the UK, we are already facing what meteorologists describe as ‘unknown extremes’ in terms of climate volatility.

Perhaps, by declaring a brand new geological epoch because of the impacts of one species, our own, the act itself will induce a re-imagining and re-forming of human-Earth relations. As a part of nature, we are cheating ourselves if we think our own dominion above all other life remains the route to living within our planetary boundaries instead of exceeding them as we do. We share one biosphere, we need to respect the precariousness of our situation, but remember our responsibilities to our evolutionary kin, both human and non-human.


Back to Monknash, and the tide is turning; significant, as it’s the second largest tidal range in the world after the Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada. As I look West along the vista of cliffs, the light is fading to pink with the onset of evening, and it’s time for me to return home. I can’t help feeling that we could somehow learn from this coast as it reveals secrets of past changes whilst recording new climates and adapting species of today and into the future.

This particular section is declared by Cardiff Vale Council to be unprotected from the onset of the sea, left to ‘natural’ processes which would have otherwise shaped our coasts for eons. We are, of course, part of nature, so our impacts may also be perceived as ‘natural’, though does not, I’d assert, make them anymore just. In other places nearby, where humans reside near current sea levels, there are, at least some plans afoot to provide defences and support. But we collectively haven’t the funds to fend off the mass of an expanding ocean for long. I can only hope that 2016 and the declaring of the Anthropocene Epoch will not go unnoticed for real change is now long overdue.


A brief response to Jan 2016 POST-Note Parliamentary Briefing on Policy.

Here’s the latest briefing from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Houses of Parliament “Trends in Environment”

If you care about nature, do read it.

As per usual, the UK science community advising here FAIL to raise the importance of egalitarian environmental education. Nor do they seriously question growth economics supported by the Natural Capital Committee (who feature prominently, of course – yawn).

Values mentioned are limited, if not singular! All in all, this document is typically reductionist, disappointing and foretells nothing new.

The Conservatives won’t be driven to act in the radical way which is now needed to set us on a truly sustainable course. Electoral reform might give the electorate (and therefore non-human life) some hope, but of course POST are hardly in a position to suggest that!

The state of the environment, and our relationship with it, is vastly more than about money. We really need to look at shifting value-sets in society, to look at our place within nature, and not without, and towards integrated action, compassion, love and reciprocity.

What we absolutely need is a cross-disciplinary and inclusive approach, to bring everyone’s individual attention and energy to real change. Egalitarian ecoliteracy offers just this.