Only yesterday I discussed government plans to act on only 31 out of 127 recommended sites for Marine Conservation Zones, and this morning the Fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, is reported by the BBC explaining that he just doesn’t have the dosh.
My own hubris does not extend to believing that the dozen or so page views my piece has received overnight might include the erstwhile minister. That would put me on a par with the editor of the Skibbereen Eagle who told Kaiser Bill that his illustrious newspaper ‘had his eye on’ the German emperor. As I reported yesterday plenty of more significant voices than my own have been raised in support of this cause including: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Marine Conservation Society.
What is significant however is the shift in the government’s position. Until now their argument has been that in the 96 sites not selected the science was unclear. Heaven forbid that they might accidentally protect something that is not actually critically endangered. However, in the report by the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, Mr Benyon admits that he would like to go further but cuts to the DEFRA budget mean that he simply doesn’t have the money needed to assess sites and put in place the necessary conservation measures.
The one concession he does make is to say that his department will release proposals for a second set of MCZs along with his decision on the first tranche. Previously there had been no clear commitment to doing anything beyond the original 31 sites.
So the government’s argument comes down to saying, times are hard, we are all having to tighten our belts and Britain’s sea creatures will have to shoulder their share of the problem. We’ll look at it again when resources are more plentiful.
The trouble with that argument is that for many endangered species or habitats this is literally a matter of life and death. Failure to act now could have dire consequences for decades to come, and for some species it might be terminal. The government has ring-fenced from cuts the Overseas Aid budget, currently running at about £12 billion per year. Implementing the full list of proposed MCZs would cost less than a thousandth part of that amount.
Richard Benyon is the fisheries minister who was unable to identify more than two common fish from a selection of 12 popular varieties eaten in the UK. As minister responsible for wildlife he came under criticism last year for felling 218 acres of woodland on his family estate to allow extraction of aggregates, and of course he works for Owen Paterson, the environment secretary who believes Europe needs agrochemical companies more than it needs bees. Is it just me or is the claim to be the ‘greenest government ever’, wearing just a little thin?