Kimmeridge Bay supports a rich variety of colourful sea life, but isn’t being considered for marine conservation zone status.
From the Guardian : With a kick of the flippers, the snorkel safari begins and the glorious seascape below unfolds like a flight over a lush, tropical jungle. Dark green Japanese seaweed stands tall from the seabed, among waving filaments of mermaid’s tresses and the psychedelic glow of magic seaweed, bright blue and tinged with purple and lime.
Among the fluffy yellow shrubs of harpoon weed, the underwater plain is studded with the waving pink-tipped tentacles of the snakelocks anemone, which grasp at a poked finger, while large green ballan wrasse fish rest among the foliage.
Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset, with its rare lagoon sea snails and peacock’s tail seaweed, is one of 127 wildlife-rich sites which a two-year, £8m consultation recommended should gain protection as marine conservation zones (MCZs).
But, despite a 350,000-signature petition, ministers are only considering 31 MCZs and, after another consultation that received 40,000 responses, they will name the first after the summer.
“The richly varied habitats in our seas support thousands of plants and animals, from sea horses to basking sharks,” says Joan Edwards, the Wildlife Trusts’ head of living seas. “We are frustrated by the lack of progress on MCZs: our seas are in urgent need of protection.”
But the debate over how much of the coastline deserves protection has now turned into a full-blown row, with environment minister Richard Benyon saying: “If you are going to stop people doing things that impact on their livelihoods, you have to have a damn good reason to do it. I get frustrated by populist campaigns that say it is 127 or bust: that is ridiculous. It is banal to suggest that MCZs are the only show in town; there are many other forms of protection.” Benyon said scientists arguing for 127 MCZs were the same ones advising him there was not enough evidence to designate them.
But Prof Callum Roberts of York University, one of 86 environmental academics who wrote in protest to Benyon in April, rejects that as “spin” and a “misleading excuse”. Roberts said the scientific assessment Benyon is referring to was never meant to be a means of preventing progress.
“Science is being misrepresented and a political decision is being dressed up as a scientific one,” Roberts says. “Ministers are quite willing to cave in to industry nonsense that it will cost millions and cost jobs, but such claims have rarely stood up in the past: often the establishment of protected zones has economic benefits.”
Benyon’s argument is “totally incoherent” according to Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow fisheries minister. “The principle behind MCZs was that they should form an ecologically coherent network. By leaving out over half of the key reference areas the minister has positioned himself against the view of the country’s leading marine scientists.”
Back in Kimmeridge Bay, sailing over the underwater crags, blennies with their almost Elizabethan fin-ruffs poke their noses out from crevasses, along with the devil-red eyes of the aggressive velvet swimming crab. An expanse of sand glitters with dozens of silvery sand eels zig-zagging in unison, while dragonet fish hide in their speckled camouflage and crabs shake their claws at the sky.
“People are surprised at how colourful our marine life is,” says Julie Hatcher, marine biologist at the Dorset Wildlife Trust. “They think it will be grey and boring, but we have amazing marine life here.”
Among her favourites are cuttlefish and slug-like sea hares. “The cuttlefish can change their colour instantly and they follow you on a dive, hoping you might dislodge a crab or a fish for them to attack, like seagulls following trawlers,” she says. “The sea hares lay pink egg strings that look like silly string.”
She has raised cuttlefish and lesser spotted cat sharks from eggs washed up in the bay and says the best discovery that day is a snake pipefish: “It’s a straightened-out version of a sea horse.”
Hatcher parts the huge wrinkled streamers of mahogany sugar kelp and oar weed to reveal the candy pink algae that coats the bedrock underneath. She points out the bright white spats – young barnacles – on a limpet-studded rock. “The limpets go for a walk around at night, grazing the algae off the rocks,” she says, also pointing out their assassins – the dog whelk and the sting winkle – which rest nearby ready to drill into the limpets with their acid-toothed tongues.
The proposed Kimmeridge Bay MCZ is not one of the 31 under consideration for designation in 2013. Hatcher thinks it should be: “I hope it will get on to the next list – if there is a next list.”