Paul Gompertz: We must protect the natural resources we depend on

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If human life is to have a viable future, we have a very short time in which to change our relationship with the natural world around us from one of plunder to one of nurture. We have just seen a landmark moment in that process, which might be described as "one small step for marine, one giant leap for marinekind".

Some 60 square nautical miles of Lyme Bay in Dorset have been closed to scallop-dredging and bottom-trawling on the orders of the Fisheries minister. This is to protect an inshore reef system that is acknowledged to be one of the most important sites for marine wildlife in the country. The move makes it the largest such protected area in the UK, which has a coastline 11,073 miles long. It is just a beginning.

I have been involved in the campaign to protect the reefs since I first saw, more than 16 years ago, pictures of their richness and stunning beauty and of the damage being done to them by certain fishing methods. Now finally the Government has decided that those damaging activities had to stop.

I am, of course, aware that it is not just damaging and unsustainable practices that are the issue. There are also some very significant attitude problems to be overcome if humankind – or at least the part of it which inhabits these shores – is to rise to the challenge of rethinking its relationship with the natural resources at its disposal on this planet.

Reaction to the ban prompted one fishermen's representative to declare that, "The feeling is now that environmentalists can smell victory, they will keep pushing ... I have absolutely no doubt some fishermen will flout the ban in due course."

I would be the first to argue that society has a responsibility to address any hardship among the fishing community resulting from the ban; but threatening lawlessness does not advance that cause.

The decision in Lyme Bay is one very small, very tentative step towards the recognition that some natural assets are of more value to us all intact than exploited for economic gain, when that exploitation will eventually further erode the very life support systems on which we depend.

It's a counter to a world which will still fly 50,000 English football supporters 1,559 miles to watch their teams play in Moscow, despite climate change. It's a counter to an advertising industry still lauding conspicuous consumption in a world of finite and diminishing resources.

If there is a winner, then it is the planet and the living functions which help keep us all alive – fishermen and so-called environmentalists alike.

Paul Gompertz is director of the Devon Wildlife Trust. This is an edited extract from the trust's campaign for marine conservation

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