Marine law planned to save oceans

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Ministers are working on Britain's first "set of rules" for the waves, in an attempt to save the crowded and damaged seas that surround its coasts.

Ministers are working on Britain's first "set of rules" for the waves, in an attempt to save the crowded and damaged seas that surround its coasts.

The new legislation, which will be unique in Europe, was given the go-ahead by the Prime Minister last week as "a new approach to managing our seas". Agreed across Whitehall, after tough interdepartmental battles, it will be included in Labour's election manifesto in an attempt to win the Green vote.

The planned Marine Bill follows an alarming wildlife collapse in the North Sea this summer, as forecast in The Independent on Sunday last October. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds failed to breed along the coast after the sand eels on which they feed disappeared.

Numbers of the once plentiful eels slumped after the cold-water plankton on which they themselves feed shifted hundreds of miles to the north, almost certainly as a result of global warming. The North Sea has warmed by 2C over the past 20 years. Scientists say that, as a result, its ecology is changing dramatically.

Unusually, the new Bill - which will include unprecedented conservation powers - has its roots in a private member's Bill put forward by an opposition MP.

John Randall, Conservative MP for Uxbridge, proposed a measure to create new protected wildlife areas at sea three years ago. His plan won Government backing, passed the Commons, but ran out of time in the House of Lords after lobbying by shipping interests.

The planned Bill, steered through Whitehall by the Environment minister Elliot Morley, has been broadened after ministers realised that a host of interests - including windfarm developers, fishing fleets, oil and gas companies, ships, firms extracting sand and gravel from the seabed and conservationists - were jostling for space in the seas, and that there were no systematic rules to govern the increasing development.

The coasts and seas are subject to a mish-mash of laws, the oldest dating back to the Magna Carta in 1215.

The new law will set out to "zone" the seas, just as the planning system does on land. Important wildlife areas will be protected, and suitable areas will be marked out for usage.

The details of the Bill are still being worked out, but it is likely to include "no-take zones", where all fishing is banned to allow stocks to recover.

These have been enormously successful around the world - fish have multiplied in them and spread out to recolonise denuded fishing areas, increasing catches. The Bill is also likely to ban damaging fishing methods.

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