Plymouth set to create the UK’s first National Marine Park

Plans are progressing for the UK’s first National Marine Park to be created in the Plymouth Sound area. But what does it mean? Who’s involved? And will it be effective?

Plymouth Sound is a busy place and filled with marine life

Plymouth is a key part of marine science and conservation work in the UK. Not only does it boast some of the most diverse habitats and biodiversity in the country, but it is also the home to many important organisations dedicated to the protection of that marine life. However it is also one of the busiest ports in the world with a strong military presence, shipping dockyards and a large fleet of fishing vessels. The seas surrounding Plymouth are also vitally important to its economy through tourism and leisure activities such as scuba diving and sailing. The aim of creating the UK’s first National Marine Park in the area is to allow all of these groups to co-exist, whilst also highlighting the importance of marine life to the public. Plymouth is the ideal place to launch such an initiative and if it is successful it could be rolled out across the nation. But if it is done in the wrong way it could potentially be very damaging.

Britain’s ocean city

Plymouth is a city founded on its connection to the sea and filled with maritime history. Plymouth sound, the Tamar estuary and the surrounding areas are filled with an abundance of marine life. It is for that reason that there is so many marine science and conservation groups based in the city including the Marine Biological Association, National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University, Blue Marine Foundation, the Shark Trust and Plymouth Marine Labs. It is also a big reason why around 12 million people visit Plymouth every year with activities such as scuba diving, wildlife cruises, sailing and water sports being very popular. The tourism sector in Plymouth also employs thousands of local people as a result.

But they are not the only people whose livelihoods depend on the sea. Shipbuilding and fishing are two massive industries that are also key to the area’s economy. Plymouth has historically been very important to the navy both building and maintaining military vessels and more recently as part of the Trident nuclear programme. Fishing has also been a way of life for many families for generations and thousands of vessels operate out of Plymouth. But overfishing and marine noise pollution from military activity has put a strain on marine life in the area. Therefore finding a way to allow scientists, tourists, shipbuilders and fishermen to co-exist and share the areas waters without affecting marine life is of the upmost importance.

Driving forces

The idea to turn Plymouth Sound and the surrounding area into the UK’s first National Marine Park (NMP) was put forward last year by Plymouth City Council. Sue Dann from the council’s environment cabinet says “it is about how the city and all the partners in the city can be the custodians of this massive of patch of blue”. The council’s leader Tudor Evans also stated “the sea is in Plymouth’s DNA” and that “there is no better place” to launch the first NMP. The council has partnered up with other groups in the city to get the ball rolling. In June 2018 the council along with Plymouth University and the Blue Marine Foundation held a conference about the project at the National Marine Aquarium. There the delegates from around the world voted almost unanimously that the NMP would be good for the city of Plymouth. This month they have also received support and funding from the government to push forward with the plan.

Delegates discuss the NMP at the National Marine Aquarium

What is a National Marine Park?

Marine parks are already in place across the world and are very popular but also range in type, size and function based on where they are and the legislation behind them. So because the UK does not have any yet, there is no real guidelines or rules about what it should be. But one thing it will not be is extra protection for marine life. This may sound a bit confusing but the marine life around Plymouth is already reasonably well protected by Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and conservation work dating back 25 years. The NMP will not add to existing protection for marine life but it will hopefully help it in other ways.

The main aims of the project are to

  • Strengthen existing marine conservation by involving the local community in initiatives and educating them about their coastal environment
  • Ensure those from disadvantaged backgrounds get the same opportunities to access the marine environment as everyone else
  • Use recreational activities to improve community health and wellbeing
  • Enhance sustainability in tourism, commercial fishing, recreation and shipping to minimise their impacts
  • Create a world leading demonstration centre to show off new marine technologies

So whilst the NMP will not directly protect marine life, it is hoped that education for locals and tourists as well as increased participation from all aspects of the local community will encourage a more sustainable use of the area.

The plan

After securing government funding the project is now in the stage of public consultation, which will run until 26th February. After that a task force will be created to work alongside the local and national governments to designate the area and finalise the objectives of the NMP. The aim is to have this accomplished by the end of the summer and the NMP to be designated by the end of the year. The park will then be fully established and new initiatives rolled out in the spring of 2020. However the timeline is not set in stone as it will be effected by the results of the public consultation.

The proposed area of the NMP

The initial proposed area will include Plymouth Sound from the Hoe to Rame Head in the west and Gara Point in the east, as well as the Tamar estuary. This is effectively the areas currently already protected by MPA’s and conservation legislation. But the plan is to eventually extend the area as far west as Looe in Cornwall and as far east as Salcombe in Devon. The extention would also cover parts of the rivers Avon, Erme and Seaton. If successful the process of creating the NMP and the legislation behind it will become a benchmark for future NMPs across the UK.

Will it work?

It is hard to know if the NMP will be effective because it is the first of its kind and no one is 100% sure about what it will end up becoming. Some conservationists would argue that it does not go far enough to protect marine life and instead will only benefit the businesses within the city. In a way this is a valid concern but if the project leaders deliver on everything they have promised it shouldn’t be an issue. Educating and engaging the public is key to this because it will increase participation in existing conservation work and encourage positive changes in behaviour including pressure on tourism, shipping and fishing to be as responsible as possible.

If the NMP is to be deemed a success wildlife must remain protected

It is also important to establish economic incentives for companies to be as sustainable as possible. After all if the marine life around Plymouth suffers then so will the multiple industries that rely on it for business. This may not sound like the right way to go about conservation, but unfortunately one of the only ways some people will care about wildlife is if there is a financial incentive to do so. Regardless the only way the NMP will be judged as successful is if marine life is protected and allowed to thrive in the area. We will not know if it is successful until after it has been set up but if it does work it may be an important way forward for marine conservation across the whole of the UK.

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