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I shall illustrate my remarks with two recent events. The first event took place yesterday, off the coast of my constituency. The 18-ft vessel of four marine biologists tipped over near Land’s End at the Runnel Stone when
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they were setting pingers to explore the impact of certain activities on cetaceans. One of my constituents, Dr. Nick Tregenza, whom I know very well and who is, in fact, my former GP, was thrown into the water along with the three others. Fortunately, some inshore fishermen were not far away and came to their rescue, but, had the marine biologists been in the water for much longer, we would have been talking about a loss of life. The two local fishermen, Andrew Pascoe and Jesse Walter, arrived in two separate boats and took them to the RNLI lifeboat, which in turn took them to the nearby fishing port of Newlyn. Two of the biologists were taken to hospital, and one, who is ill, remains there.

I spoke to Nick Tregenza earlier today, and the moral of the story is that, although the relationship between marine biologists and fishermen is often characterised as one of perpetual conflict, over recent years they have come together, as symbolised by fishermen saving the lives of marine biologists off the coast of my constituency only yesterday. They support each other and recognise each other’s position much more than they did 10 or 15 years ago, when I first entered the House.

The second event took place a year ago, on 9 June 2008, when 26 dolphins rather inexplicably became stranded on the south coast of Cornwall around the Falmouth and Percuil area. Last month, we received a report from the UK cetaceans strandings investigation programme. Although it found that no definite cause could be identified, it drew attention to high-intensity acoustic activity from naval sonar in the region just before the event. Those two things are not necessarily connected, but Nick Tregenza, who is an expert on cetaceans, tells me that they can easily become spooked by such activity, which can affect them for a long time. We can only speculate about what happened, but today’s debate has drawn attention to the activities of fishermen, who have been caricatured as the villains causing the most damage to our seas, and we need to look rather wider. Fishermen are engaging much more constructively in the processes under discussion to protect the future of sustainable fishing.

Cetaceans are highly sensitive and fragile animals. Around the coast of Cornwall and south-west England, there is a small group—only 12 in number—of bottlenose dolphins, despite there being 400 miles of coastline in the area. With the exception of an 18-year period from the 1980s, bottlenose dolphins have lived in the area since time immemorial—a point that I made in a debate on 6 February 2008.

We need the Bill, because other parts of the world, from New Zealand to Canada, have similar legislation, and it is working. We are an island nation and, given our location and dependence on the sea, rather unique in Europe. Marine wildlife is in a seriously fragile state, with population decline and, in some cases, stock collapse, and there are new pressures from offshore wind, tidal and wave energy, which we knew nothing or very little about just 10 or 15 years ago—hence the need to act. Other industries are also developing, and the technology available to the fishing industry is much more powerful now than it was 20 years ago.

I want to comment on the need, in some cases, for a higher tier of protection. I also want to discuss the extent to which socio-economic consequences need to
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be considered in the designation and planning of marine conservation zones, the territorial extent of the Bill and its relationship with the common fisheries policy—which has already been addressed on a couple of occasions—the importance of the proper management of the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities in the 6-mile zone, and coastal access.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who is no longer present, referred to the concern felt by many about the designation of the MMO and the impact that it will have on the current staff of the Marine and Fisheries Agency. I wrote to the Minister earlier in the year, and he replied on 6 February:

However, concerns remain despite the reassurances that I have conveyed to my constituents in the sector, and it seems that there is more work for the Government to do.

The Secretary of State did not mention Finding Sanctuary, an organisation that was established to identify potential candidates for marine conservation zones. I commend the work of Finding Sanctuary and the other bodies that are already doing that work. In an intervention on the Secretary of State’s speech, I spoke of the importance of providing more protection for particularly fragile, vulnerable areas within MCZs. Notwithstanding his reassurance, it is clear that the conservation bodies that have campaigned for legislation remain unconvinced that the Bill as it stands provides the level of protection they want.

As I have said before, it would be wrong to characterise fishermen as interested only in plundering the stocks of the sea. Let me give an example of which the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe should be well aware. Fishermen in my area have been campaigning for many years, saying “Please save us from ourselves by closing the fishing grounds in the Trevose area”—which is off the north coast of Cornwall—“during the early spring months each year.” It has been done, and as a result foreign vessels have been kept out, along with the UK vessels that wanted to protect the spawning grounds off Trevose. That is already paying dividends in stock recovery.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): It is clear that the Chamber is awash with conservationists, but our annual debate on fisheries policy is always full of Members of Parliament kowtowing to commercial fishing interests. Has the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to read Fishing News, and to note the whining and wailing—excuse the pun—from the commercial sector about the prospect of the introduction of marine conservation zones? There are serious battles ahead. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we shall have to have the courage to face down the commercial sector?

Andrew George: I think that there is a robust debate ahead, but I also think that the hon. Gentleman is falling into the trap of caricaturing fishermen when it comes to the introduction of marine conservation zones. He used the expression “whining and wailing”. As I have just said, it was fishermen themselves who called for the closure of the Trevose ground. Fishermen wish to work internationally—because most agreements of this kind can be achieved only internationally—to protect the sustainability of their own industry.

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Linda Gilroy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the present degree of co-operation between the fisheries and with conservation organisations in the south-west owes a great deal to the invest in fish programme—in which DEFRA invested about £1 million—and that some of the best practice in our islands is in the south-west fisheries area?

Andrew George: Yes. I commend the activities of the invest in fish programme, which has made a tremendous contribution. There is now a constructive debate between fishermen and marine biologists. I gave a symbolic example from as recently as yesterday, which I think demonstrates both parties’ commitment to talk to and support each other.

We are taking about extremely fragile mobile stock. Skate, for example, live to the age of 100, and the males do not reach sexual maturity until the age of 11. When fish are removed from that stock, it takes a long time for the stock to recover. Off the continental shelf, orange roughy and other deep-water fish do not reach sexual maturity until the age of 30, and live well beyond the age of 100. Plundering of that stock has an immediate impact from which it takes the stock many years to recover. I hope the Minister will also bear it in mind that, in identifying marine conservation zones, we should consider the wider issues of marine artefacts, naval war graves and wrecks. As well as marine biodiversity, there is some archaeology out there.

There has already been discussion of the extent to which socio-economic consequences can be taken into account in the identification of MCZs. I think that the Government should reconsider their position on two different types of designation: designation of highly protected zones, and designation of those that represent the kind of marine environment around the United Kingdom coast. I agree with those who believe that socio-economic consequences should be put aside when there needs to be a designation similar to that of sites of special scientific interest, based purely on the vulnerability, fragility and uniqueness of the site that needs to be protected. However, I hope that if it is a case of one site versus another—a sandy-bottom versus a rocky-bottom area, for instance—the socio-economic consequences will be considered at that stage. They should certainly be brought to bear in implementing marine plans.

I said that I would refer to the territorial extent of the Bill. I have raised the issue with the Minister before. As he knows, we will have effective absolute jurisdiction and control within the 6-mile zone, particularly in regard to fishing, and will have control to a middling extent within the 12-mile zone. In answer to a question that I asked him earlier in the year, the Minister replied:

It is clear that in the 6-mile zone—and particularly in the area between 6 and 12 miles where a number of other nations have historic fishing entitlements—we need to move much more quickly. We must either secure bilateral agreements with those nations and their fishing fleets or, through the European Union, secure a clear recognition within the 200-mile and median line zones that we are capable of applying the same rules to other fishing nations as to our own. This is a critical issue. I hope that the Minister will take it on board, and that we shall be able to explore it still further in Committee.

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With regard to the inshore fisheries conservation authorities, the Minister already knows that I hope that he will respect the integrity of the boundaries of the current sea fisheries committees. There is a local issue with the maintenance of the distinction between the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall, for example. It is important that, in managing such issues, the isles and the county are managed distinctly, rather than being subsumed into a much larger hole.

Way back, on 28 November 2000, I had a debate in Westminster Hall with the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe on the future of the inshore fishing industry and the rather archaic legislation on sea fisheries committees. We recognised that we needed consolidating legislation to update all the regulations under which sea fisheries committees operate. I hope that the Minister will reassure me in Committee that those issues are being properly addressed.

Finally, I turn to coastal access. Of course, we welcome the introduction in the Lords of a robust appeals mechanism. There is a need for further debate about not only equestrians but dog owners in respect of wildlife considerations, particularly ground-nesting birds on the coastline. Furthermore, disabled people’s access to the coastline has not been properly explored.

This is an important Bill. We have commenced with a constructive dialogue, and I hope that we can take that forward to the Committee.

6.52 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on this important and welcome Bill. Its provisions for better protecting the marine environment and for improving access to, and recreational use of, our coastal areas are enormously significant. We can and should celebrate those provisions. In the next few minutes, I shall look at the measures being introduced to enable better marine nature conservation and the suggestions for strengthening them. I shall go on to consider the relationship between landscape and seascape, and explore how that can be addressed in the Bill. First, however, I warmly welcome the approach to devolution adopted in the Bill. As one who represents a Welsh constituency, I think that the Bill manages to provide a coherence and cohesion between England and Wales while honouring the democratic responsibilities of both the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was completely right when he said that the bits fit.

On coastal access, I strongly support the inclusion of framework powers for the Assembly; I am sure that in due course that will lead to the creation of a complete Welsh coastal path or paths. The Assembly has already moved forward on that issue through its own coastal access improvement programme. It is right that it should build on that by consulting people and organisations concerned with the establishment and maintenance of one or more coastal paths and with securing better access to land for recreational purposes.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there is a fundamental difference between the coastal access that has been successfully implemented in Wales and what the Bill proposes? Landowners and farmers in Wales will be
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compensated for the access across their land. Landowners and farmers in the south-west, incidentally, were compensated in respect of the south-west coastal path, which was equally successful.

Mr. Caton: I accept that. There is a different approach, but the Bill includes framework powers to enable the Assembly to follow an approach similar to that in England. I note that ramblers in England are concerned that recreational users of coastal land might not have adequate input into the development of the English coastal path. I hope that that proves not to be the case.

I turn to what is in many ways the heart of the Bill: its measures for protecting the marine environment. For far too long, the marine environment has played second fiddle to the terrestrial environment, because we do not come into regular contact with so much of its flora and fauna. Furthermore, we do not see the damage that human activity sometimes inflicts under the sea, and its knock-on consequences; too often, out of sight has meant out of mind. The Bill changes that, most importantly through the creation of marine conservation zones to enable the protection of rare, valued or representative marine species and habitats and through a means to enforce that protection.

However, like other Members, I have been impressed by the powerful case for strengthening this part of the Bill put forward by a range of environmental organisations. First, it would help only if there were a duty to designate an ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones, with recognition of the need for connectivity between them. Secondly, before hearing the Secretary of State, I believed that there was a strong case for marine conservation zones to include designated, highly protected sites where extraction or other damaging activities would be completely outlawed. I was reassured to hear the Secretary of State say that that will happen under the Bill as it is.

Thirdly, like the non-governmental organisations and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), I am worried that allowing economic and social consequences to be considered when designating sites might provide a let-out clause to prevent us from establishing marine conservation zones where they are most needed. Surely the environmental importance of the site should be decisive in deciding whether it is designated. Of course, social and economic issues should be an important factor in decisions further down the line about the management of the zone, but they should not, I suggest, be a factor in the designation decision.

Fourthly, I support the call for the offence of damaging the marine conservation zone to be expanded in two ways. At present, the offence is limited to intentional damage, but reckless damage should be added. That would have the benefit of deterring recklessness at such valuable marine locations and overcome the problem of proving intent. Disturbance of sites should also be an offence. That is especially important for the adequate protection of marine mammals and sea birds, which are particularly vulnerable to disturbance.

Finally, I am attracted to the suggestion from the Countryside Council of Wales, among others, that public bodies should be required to notify Ministers when they are minded to consent to potentially damaging activity
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on public interest grounds. Furthermore, Ministers should have a call-in power for decisions in relation to activities that may impact on a marine conservation zone.

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the huge number of constituents who have contacted me on this issue? They have said that we will miss an opportunity if the Bill is not strong enough, particularly in relation to marine conservation zones.

Mr. Caton: I do agree. I think that the Bill is very good, but there is potential for strengthening it. I hope that, when it gets to Committee, the possibilities will be fully explored.

Martin Salter: My hon. Friend mentioned damage. Is he aware that clause 140 makes a person guilty of an offence if they damage protected features of the marine conservation zones? Unfortunately, that is qualified by clause 141, which provides a blanket defence for any activity that can be defined as being in the course of sea fishing. Should commercial sea fishing be given that blanket defence in the context of marine conservation zones? Does my hon. Friend agree that an amendment raising that issue should be considered in Committee?

Mr. Caton: I agree. That strong point has been made by various organisations, and it should be considered in Committee.

At the commencement of the Bill’s progress in the other place, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who will reply to this debate, kindly attended a meeting of the all-party group on areas of outstanding natural beauty, which I chair. He will therefore be familiar with the points that I am about to make about the need to conserve our nationally important seascapes just as we protect landscapes through designation as national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission in marine determinations is inappropriate and that it should be up to the marine management organisation to make decisions on all matters relating to the marine environment?

Mr. Caton: No, I do not, and I do not wish to labour that point, because I want to make my point about landscapes and seascapes.

The Campaign for National Parks, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, the English National Park Authorities Association, Europarc Atlantic Isles, the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the National Trust and the Welsh Association of National Park Authorities are all on record as supporting the Bill. However, they are all concerned about its lack of reference to the conservation of our finest seascapes, including the marine dimension of the many protected landscapes such as the Gower area of outstanding natural beauty in my constituency, and the absence of any mechanism for designating nationally important seascapes.

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The Government accepted the term “seascape” in the high-level objectives for the marine environment published earlier this year. The definition provided is:

As with protected landscapes, the term embraces not only biodiversity but physical features, historic and cultural heritage and opportunities for recreation. Of course it includes scenery, but a seascape is more than just the view, as stunning as that can often be on the British coast.

In the Marine Bill White Paper of 2007, the Government stated that

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