The UK government has finally proposed five new protected areas for the vulnerable harbour porpoise – under threat of legal action from the European Commission.
Three of these sites are wholly or partly in Welsh waters, with a fourth off the coast of Northern Ireland and a fifth covering almost 37,000km2 off the east English coast. These sites were submitted to the Commission on 30 January 2017, and are now considered to be candidate Special Areas of Conservation (cSAC), pending Commission approval.
However, designation is only the first step. To make sure harbour porpoises are really safe, these sites must be well managed. This is particularly important in light of Brexit, which calls into question what will become of all sites currently protected by EU law after we leave the European Union.
Why protect harbour porpoises?
Our smallest marine mammal, the harbour porpoise, is under threat. The law therefore requires the government to protect the areas where they feed and breed. Protected areas are essential for the porpoises to survive, because their ability to catch food, breed and communicate is at risk.
The main pressures are thought to be accidental capture by fishing boats (known as by-catch), overfishing affecting their food supply, chemical pollution and disturbance from vessel or construction noise.
Turning designation into protection
These new designations are heartening. The government has been under great pressure to make this announcement, as the Commission has been calling for designation of several UK sites to protect these creatures for years.
In 2013 and 2014, the Commission sent warnings to the UK, saying that it must designate sites for harbour porpoises in order to avoid legal action. The Scottish government took action in September 2016, putting forward a site for harbour porpoises off the west coast of Scotland – but only a week later, the Commission announced it would nonetheless take the UK to court, because this was not enough to protect the creatures.
However, designation is only the first step to creating protected areas that really work. To be truly effective, the areas must also well managed. European sites benefit from strong legal protections. The government has a duty to ensure that the sites do not deteriorate and that the species they protect are not disturbed. They also need to ensure that any plans or projects don’t damage a site.
The government must make sure that potentially damaging fishing activities and noisy marine operations are limited in these areas, otherwise they will become ‘paper parks’ – areas that are protected in name, but not in practice. So far, the government has failed to put forward any firm plans about how it intends to manage these sites.
There are also concerns about whether the new areas extend far enough to protect these very mobile species. Harbour porpoises live and breed mainly in coastal areas and river estuaries – but they can cover hundreds of miles searching for food and breeding grounds. For example, areas extending further eastwards to cover the Gower coast and Swansea Bay are not protected under current plans, even though harbour porpoises live in these areas. There also remains an outstanding question about why the Scottish government has not progressed a site off Scotland’s east coast, which has also been identified as important for the species.
What now for these sites?
The European Commission should be quick to approve these designations.
We now need to make sure that these sites, and others like them, are properly managed and maintained – and in the longer-term, ensure that there is no back-pedalling on the government’s commitments to protect marine life in a post-Brexit world.