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Special Area of Conservation

In 2009, the year after the 60 sq mile closure, Natural England proposed the area from Poole Bay to Lyme Bay as a Special Area of Conservation under the EC Habitats Directive. The area was duly submitted by Defra to the European Commission as a Candidate Special Area of Conservation in August 2010.

The protected habitats defined under Annex 1 of the directive are reefs - bedrock reefs, stone reefs and biogenic reefs - and submerged or partially submerged sea caves. For the purpose of this document we will only deal with the part of the SAC that is in Lyme Bay. The draft conservation objectives for the reefs - which must be applied now the area is a cSAC - are to maintain the reefs to favourable condition or to restore them. A debate continues between the displaced fishermen and the MMO whether mobile gear should be allowed into areas of the cSAC with mobile, ie mud, sand or gravel bottoms. A trial of inshore VMS technology, which could accurately monitor where vessels were fishing within the closed area, is under way, with the assumption that some return to fishing or dredging on ground away from reef features is possible for the vessels that have been displaced. Whether that is a fair assumption waits on a decision by MMO.

There is an assumption made in the directive itself that any new plan or operation will require an impact assessment. This is currently subject to a legal case - brought by Client Earth and Marine Conservation Society - suggesting that more fishing operations in SACs should be subject to impact assessment. This is relevant to our fishermen, who find it an attractive option to pay for an impact assessment of their own operations to validate its low impact nature and guarantee access.

Meanwhile, Natural England has made certain assumptions about static gear fishing in setting their conservation objectives which have not been tested by monitoring yet. It is a reasonable assumption that mobile fishing gears, particularly scallop dredges, are the most likely to cause degradation and damage to the reefs. But it is probably not a fair assumption that any level of fishing with static gear is sustainable. Natural England's evidence base document for the designation of the SAC concedes that circumstances might arise in which fishing effort had to be capped. The agency does concede that survey data has documented some damage to have occurred to sea fan colonies in inshore areas where trawling does not occur that may be due to static gear. [For reference: Inshore Special Area of Conservation: Poole Bay to Lyme Bay, Draft Conservation Objectives and Advice on Operations.] Though biological disturbance has reduced considerably as a result of the closure, Natural England also says that "removal of fish species and larger molluscs and crustaceans can have significant impacts on the structure and functioning of benthic communities over and above the physical effects of fishing methods." It adds that the "relatively high incidence of potting for crab, lobster and whelk within the statutory closure and other types of fishing outside it suggests that the overall exposure to selective extraction may be quite high." Overall, it says that that vulnerability of reef sub-features within the Poole Bay to Lyme Bay SAC to biological disturbance is considered to be moderate to high.

It is therefore surprising that Defra did not include any instructions to monitor the biological disturbance caused by general fishing activity in their remit to the Plymouth researchers, especially so as the researchers' own monitoring suggested an increase in landings, even a decline in catches in some areas. Stephen Mangi, one of the authors of Plymouth's socio-economic study of the closure, commissioned by Defra, told us of a "skyrocketing" of the volume static gear in the closure area. The impact of the extraction of more than 600 tons of whelks in a single year is not monitored. There is local concern about the volumes of cuttlefish being landed. But the local regulators have no data one way or the other to make a judgment from on these non-quota species as no monitoring has been carried out. So if this is meant to be a sustainable use marine protected area there are some worrying signs that things may be going wrong and a lack of information to demonstrate it is being managed well. For the area to be valued as the multi-use marine national park it effectively is, we have to do better than that.