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Don’t hold your breath!


Can you remember as a child being so excited about something that you found yourself holding your breath?

Well I feel like I’ve been holding my breath every day for weeks now, as we wait to hear the government’s announcement of new marine protected areas – so-called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) – to protect some of the best biodiversity in our seas. While waiting, I decided to find out for how long some marine wildlife can hold its breath.

Sperm whales can hold their breath while diving for over an hour and elephant seals for around two hours.

Harbour seals found around our own coastline – but currently in serious decline – can hold their breath for 30 minutes. while for a walrus it is around 10 minutes.

The world record for a human freediver is 11 minutes and 35 seconds

Individuals from a marine community in south-east Asia regularly free dive for 5 minutes while hunting for food.

For me, it is only around two minutes and even that is hard!

 A grey seal swims in the sea beneath some cliffsGrey seal beneath cliffs by Alexander Mustard

I also started thinking recently about how long it takes to provide the urgently needed protection for marine wildlife and habitats. A colleague recently reminded me that we have been working towards better regulation for our seas for over 15 years now. It was in the 1990s that we started calling for new legislation to improve the management of our seas and the protection of marine wildlife. We were celebrating four years ago in 2009 when the Marine and Coastal Access Act (MCAA) was adopted and the designation of MCZs became a possibility.

Improvements in the management of the seas and protection of marine wildlife seemed assured, even more so when the first MCZ was adopted for the waters around Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel in January 2010. However since then progress has been breathtakingly slow, and I am still metaphorically – not literally – holding my breath for the first tranche of them to be announced.

In June this year, I wrote about the presentation of 350,000 pledges supporting their designation, which leading conservation charities – WWF UK included –  handed to Downing Street, hoping that this would provide the Government with a mandate for swift and effective action. But time is running out if the first tranche of MCZs are to be adopted this year.

MCZs were originally conceived as a new type of marine protected area which, alongside existing designations of Special Areas for Conservation (SACs) for habitats and species of European importance, Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Ramsar sites to protect wetlands, would be used to design and create an ecologically coherent network of areas. As MCZs can only be designated in English inshore and English and Welsh offshore waters, similar initiatives are underway in Wales and Scotland and will be in Northern Ireland to eventually create a UK-wide network that will ensure that the full range of marine biodiversity found in the UK’s seas will be afforded some level of protection.

While waiting for the announcement on which of the 31 sites currently under consideration will be designated, it is important to remember that these are a far cry from the 127 sites originally recommended in September 2011 by the government’s statutory advisors, following a two and half year consultation process involving a million stakeholders.

The continued delay in designating the first tranche of MCZs is even more worrying since it is now well over a year since the government’s statutory advisors also identified those sites at greatest risk and where early designation was important. Of the original 127 sites, the government’s own advisors considered 59 sites to be at higher risk of damage or deterioration and meriting early designation – clearly significantly more than we are anticipating will be included in the announcement.

Four years after the adoption of new legislation – two years after the publication of 127 recommended MCZs – and eight months after the government consultation on the first 31 sites concluded, we are still waiting for exciting news on a suite of new marine protected areas. But forgive me if I am not tempted to try to hold my breath in anticipation. Not even a sperm whale can wait that long.

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