This is North Devon: 'Divisive' marine conservation zones to hit divers, sailors and fishermen
Plans to protect marine wildlife from decline could result in tough new restrictions on Westcountry sailors, fishermen and scuba divers.
Locations in the region feature heavily among the list of proposed marine conservation zones, designed to safeguard the country's most cherished coastal environments, affording them the same sort of protection as Britain's nature reserves in a quest to prevent them from being eroded.
But water users' groups say the plans – due to land on ministers' desks soon – would have severe knock-on effects on those who rely on the South West's coastline for employment and leisure.
"A lot of the small inshore areas proposed as conservation zones coincide with estuaries and bays that are used by sailors for mooring, or for laying buoys for racing," said Alana Murphy, planning and environmental officer at the Royal Yachting Association. "We are concerned we could lose important sailing areas."
Ministers are already nervous about the response to the plans.
Richard Benyon, the minister for the natural environment and fisheries, who will announce a public consultation later this year, said: "Looking after wildlife and habitats in our seas is just as important as looking after those on land.
"That is why I want to see the introduction of marine conservation zones, but I am keen that they are created on sound scientific evidence."
The restrictions in each zone will vary according to local needs and conditions.
A number of areas across the South West have already been identified, including Mount's Bay, Newquay, Chesil Beach and Lundy Island.
The proposal has emerged amid growing concern about the effect of humanity on the marine environment. Plummeting fish and shellfish catches have provided indirect evidence of how the sea is being stripped of life.
In Britain's own territorial waters, populations of species such as cod and haddock are less than one-twentieth of their estimated natural level. These observations are backed by direct evidence such as videos attached to fishing gear that show how techniques such as dredging can sterilise the seabed.
"Marine conservation zones are a divisive issue, and sailors should voice their opinion," said Kieran Flatt, editor of Yachting Monthly, whose edition next month will focus on their possible impact.
In the short-term, fishermen may suffer the most dramatic effect if the proposals are adopted. The failures of the European Union's common fisheries policy have already seen Britain's fish stocks plummet, so reducing fishing pressure would have to be a key factor if conservation zones were to prove effective.
The industry employs about 13,000 full-time UK fishermen operating 6,500 vessels and landing 606,000 tons of fish and shellfish worth £719 million each year. One hope is that the zones would become fish sanctuaries, replenishing populations around them.
But Dale Rodmell, assistant chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, said the scale of the proposed new reserves was too great.
"The risk is that they will be of little value to conservation. They will push fishing to other areas which will then get overfished," he said.
Energy companies, particularly those investing in offshore wind farms, have also expressed concern. The Government is preparing the next round of licences for wind farm development, which will see vast new tracts of seabed made available to developers from 2015. Energy secretary Ed Davey wants between 6,000 and 8,000 new offshore turbines installed by 2030.
David Krohn, wave and tidal development manager at RenewableUK, which represents the wind industry, said: "We accept there are impacts. The biggest comes from installing the turbines... The same applies to the laying of cables back to land. However, once they are built, wind farms can act as sanctuaries for fish, as fishing boats cannot fish there. So they may be good for conservation."