By Lewis Smith | July 02 2012
Fishermen and conservationists have formed an alliance designed to save England’s “coral garden” from destruction by overfishing.
Lyme Bay became the UK’s largest marine protected area in 2008 when scallop dredging was banned but the measure had the “unintended consequence” of encouraging fishermen to vastly increase the number of static pots and nets.
The bay and its fragile reef ecosystem is again threatened with overfishing in the 90 square miles that trawlers are barred from, including a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), but fishermen and conservationists have now agreed a unique deal which they hope will save it.
The initiative was hailed as offering a blueprint to how fishing can be allowed to continue in other marine SACs and the 127 marine protected zones proposed around the UK’s coast, just as farming and other industries are able to continue operating in terrestrial national parks.
Charles Clover, chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation and author of The End of The Line, unveiled the project in London where he accused the government of failing to ensure marine SACs are managed properly.
“Lyme Bay is already a marine protected area. The question is whether it is well run. The government has certainly not managed any of its marine SACs, in my view, in the way that they are legally obliged to be by Europe.
“In a sense, they have let Lyme Bay down. What they [Defra] had was a very legalistic approach. They didn’t look at the ecosystem.”
Mr Clover, who has previously been seen as a bête noir for the fishing industry, added that in creating the Marine Act, MPs failed to provide themselves and officials with the powers necessary to control and monitor marine protected areas.
Fishing pressure in Lyme Bay has doubled since scallop dredgers were barred from the area. With the trawlers excluded, the area attracted far more boats using static gear.
A Memorandum of Understanding has now been reached between Blue and fishermen on the Devon and Dorset coast. It is designed to reduce the impact fishing has on the reef system while enabling fishermen to continue toearn a living and retain their historic fishing rights.
Whereas fishing boats were carrying up to 1,000 pots for whelks, crabs and lobsters, the voluntary agreement limited them to 250 crab and lobster pots or 500 whelk pots. Nets will be restricted to a maximum length of 600 metres.
An intensive programme of marine research by scientists fromthe University of Plymouth is also planned and is intended to demonstrate how much of each commercial species can be caught in the area sustainably. A lobster hatchery for the bay is also proposed as part of the deal which has “cornerstone” funding for three years from Marks & Spencer.
Mark Hix, the chef and restaurateur, runs the Hix Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis and welcomed the deal. He said: "I am all for this intelligent initiative to preserve this amazing area to ensure there are fish and shellfish now and for the next generation, especially my two-week-old daughter Isla. We need to support small fishing businesses like those that are involved with this project."
Lyme Bay’s reef system supports 300 different species of marine wildlife, including rare fauna such as the protected pink seafan and the sunset coral, on the remnants of a prehistoric coastline. Commercial species include whelks – 600 tonnes are taken annually at present – crabs and lobsters.
Fishermen who have backed the project include Dave Sales, of the Bridport Commercial Boat Owners’ and Fishermen’s Association, who described it as a blueprint to ensure there will still be fish and shellfish to catch for his “grandchildren’s grandchildren”.
Previous attempts to regulate fishing have, he said at the project launch at Fishmongers Hall in London, have seen officials and conservationists attempt to impose solutions on fishermen whereas the new deal is “bottom up”. “It’s all come up from the fishermen,” he said. “It isn’t top down.
“It’s exciting. If we can get this to work it’s a way forward for the future. This is a gleam of light – let’s grasp it. Sustainability provides a future for the fishermen.”
He added that the scheme will benefit not just fishermen and conservation, but the local community which relies heavily on dive tourism.
Alex Jones, representing a group of young fishermen in Lyme Regis, said: "The future has to be with fishermen and scientists working together towards a common goal of sustainability, protecting areas but still keeping the fishing communities going.”