Barely a week goes by in Britain without a protest about some threat to our countryside. But public opposition to the despoliation of the waters which surround these islands has always been considerably scarcer. For too long, "under the sea" has meant "out of mind". The publication of a draft Marine Bill yesterday, after three years of waiting, is a hopeful sign that this oversight is finally going to be corrected.
The Bill promises a network of protected marine areas to cover a fifth of British waters by 2012, as well as some welcome measures to give the public the freedom to walk around the entire English coastline for the first time.
But the central provision of the Bill is the creation of a "Marine Management Organisation" to regulate developments such as offshore wind farms and to enforce environmental protection laws.
Such streamlining of oversight makes sense. At present, the system that energy companies must go through to build an offshore wind turbine is hugely complicated. It involves a tortuous rigmarole of leasing land from the Crown Estates, soliciting approval from the Department of Trade and Industry and finally waiting while an environmental assessment is commissioned by the Department for the Environment. A single regulatory agency would be able to accomplish all this much more quickly and efficiently.
But serious concerns remain that this Bill will lack bite when it comes to protecting our coastline and inshore waters. There are already marine "protected areas" around Britain, yet some of these permit dredging for scallops and bottom-trawling by fishing fleets. Both of these practices have a catastrophic effect on the marine ecosystem.
It is unclear what this Bill would do to prevent such unsustainable exploitation. Furthermore, ministers need to recognise that this Bill will be ineffective in protecting our seas unless the Government also gets serious about protecting European fisheries through the Common Fisheries Policy, and action to forestall runaway climate change. Sadly, the effects of over-fishing and global warming will not stop 12 nautical miles from the British coast. Those interested in protecting our marine environment must think globally. But this Bill can be a start.
It would be wrong to ignore the existence of genuine tensions over the use of our waters. Renewable energy companies, dredging firms, conservationists and fishermen all have legitimate claims (to a greater or lesser extent) on the seas. But surely no one would dispute that it is time to begin treating our coastal waters as what they always have been: a communal resource far too precious to ignore.