Beneath those waves

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Forget this winter’s day for a moment and cast your mind back to summertime. You are at the beach, immersed in a world of ice-creams, children splashing in the sea, sandy sun cream and the smell of fish and chips.

Now wrench yourself back to chilly today and our coastline right now. The sea is crashing on the shore, the wind whirls and an oystercatcher calls out in its shrill voice.  Aside from the soggy Labradors accompanied by Barbour and welly clad walkers, the landscape at first glance seems deserted. 

Our coastline has two faces. The one we see most of is the kiss-me-quick, sand between your toes summer fun land. However, the moody, brooding, elemental winter personality can be even more compelling.

 It is at this time of year that our coast really returns to nature. At the moment, seals are pupping on the Norfolk coast and birds such as the pink-footed geese have arrived in their thousands from the arctic. Under the sea, the fish, lobsters, seahorses and whales are quietly minding their own business.

Many of these creatures are under threat. This is because we treat the sea as both our dump site and our eat all you can buffet. We plunder its resources with damaging practices such as dredging for aggregate.

Four years ago, a process began to give more protection to these hidden and vital habitats. This led to the announcement last week of 27 new marine conservation zones in English seas. Disappointingly, this number falls far short of the total recommended in the Government’s own report back in 2009 and means that only a patchwork of areas have a chance to recover.

Our region didn’t fare too well in this first round of protection. Blackwater, Crouch, Roach and Colne Estuaries, on the Essex coast, were the lucky ones with new designation to look after the native oysters there.

There was bad news though for the Stour and Orwell estuaries, which were dropped off the list. This is despite the fact that they contain several very important marine species including honeycomb worms, blue mussel beds and native oysters.

Still on hold is Blakeney Marshes on the North Norfolk coast. The fabulous saltmarsh and mudflats here are very important for birds such as Sandwich terns, ringed plovers and oystercatchers.

Similarly waiting is the Cromer chalk reef, which is most likely the largest chalk reef in Europe. It is home to blue mussel beds, over 30 species of sea slug, harbour porpoises and seals.

The next round of zones will be consulted on in 2015. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly and in the meantime, our natural marine resources, as well as the livelihoods that depend up them, are at risk.

Next time you get a chance to look out to sea, don’t just decide your New Year’s resolutions or fantasise about your pub lunch. Instead, plan a letter to your MP asking what they are doing to ensure our seas are protected. Unless we get this right, a slow, silent tragedy could be unfolding beneath those waves.

First published in the EDP and EADT

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