Ministers are reneging on promises to safeguard vital wildlife areas around Britain's coasts from destruction through "world-leading" legislation, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
They have diluted plans to set up highly protected areas where dredging and drilling are banned in the Marine Bill that is working its way through Parliament.
Baroness Young, a Labour peer who was until recently the chief executive of the Environment Agency, accused them of "failing to rise to the challenge of protecting our marine environment", and green groups were furious.
Britain's coastal waters – which cover three times the area of its land – are, perhaps surprisingly, some of the richest and most diverse in the world's oceans. They are home to some 44,000 different species – ranging from colourful coldwater corals to the basking shark, the world's second biggest fish after the whale shark.
But vast areas have been devastated by industrial-scale fishing and trawling, dredging and exploitation for aggregates, gas and oil.
They are also almost unprotected. While about 9 per cent of Britain's land surface is safeguarded in more than 6,500 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), only two tiny patches of coastal water – a 3.3sqkm patch off Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and Lamlash Bay on the Isle of Arran – receive similar protection.
Establishing "no-take zones" like these has been strikingly successful around the world; marine life has rapidly recovered and spread to surrounding areas, greatly increasing fish catches. Lobsters have increased sevenfold since the small Lundy zone was established just six years ago.
Other attempts to protect British sea life have been largely unsuccessful because fishing and other activities have been allowed. When the Marine Bill was announced, the then Environment Secretary, David Miliband, said it would "raise planning for the management and protection of our seas to a world-leading level".
Ministers promised to set up "an ecologically coherent network" of safeguarded sites, "including some Highly Protected Marine Reserves", effectively no-take zones. But the Bill does not provide for them. It does propose to establish "marine conservation zones", but these are expected to be less well protected. And whereas SSSIs on land are established for their conservation value alone, ministers will be allowed to bear economic considerations in mind for the sea zones.
Lady Young said that, as a result, "very few" even of these less-protected areas will be set up, and then only in areas where there are no damaging activities anyway.
Joan Edwards, head of marine policy for the Wildlife Trusts, said she is "very, very unhappy" with the provisions. Dr Sharon Thompson of the RSPB called them "an outrage".