An Act or just acting?

An Act or just acting?

Hunting for stowaways, ORCA stealthily approaches, searching silently for migrants. Children and adults wait in anticipation as the cold uninvited saline air enshrouds the skin. On the horizon, the recognisable back of a porpoise breaches the water.

ORCA wildlife officers are the onboard experts. A marine conservation charity dedicated to forging links between people and the sea, they offer presentations on the ecology of the seas around Britain, climate change and marine conservation issues. ORCA are present on various ferry crossings engaging passengers to survey for whales, porpoises, dolphins and migrating birds. Making an otherwise uneventful sea crossing, more enjoyable.

The Marine and Coastal Access Bill received Royal Assent on 12th November 2009 and is now an Act of parliament and Law. It has taken nearly a decade of campaigning by MCS (Marine Conservation Society), RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and TWT (The Wildlife Trusts) to finally get it through. England is the only country in the world to have a successful marine protection legislation. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn added “We know that our blue spaces face the same pressures from climate change as our green spaces – we just can’t see it. The Marine Conservation Zones created by this groundbreaking Act will therefore recognise that the wildlife and habitats in our seas are just as important as those on the land.”

Natural England will oversee both the new zones, which will allow for greater protection for endangered and rare species and a single coastal path around England to ensure better access for all. The new Marine Management Organisation in Newcastle will take responsibility for enforcing environmental laws and will ensure marine planning applications like offshore renewable energy plants legally conform.

Kathryn Driscoll, ORCA wildlife Officer aboard the Harwich – Esberg sailing welcomes the new legislation ” …at last our stake in the future protection of our seas and its marine life has been recognised. By 2012 a network of Marine Reserves are to be put into place around our coastline.”

ORCA offer unique mini wildlife cruises to places like FanØ. In the Wadden Sea national park, a UNESCO world heritage site, the island is surrounded by intertidal mud flats. Covering 16km by 5km it provides refuge to between 6-12 million migrating birds yearly, including many endangered and rare species. Boasting a diverse range of natural habitat, birds from Canada and Siberia also flock to the ‘all you can eat buffet’. To the South, a miles’ walk out from the shore colonies of Common and Grey seals are found.

With pressure now on to designate areas for protection, the role of the trained volunteer becomes increasingly valuable. Marine survey training is available from ORCA for anyone interested in contributing to protecting this environment. Without volunteer engagement from the Trusts and Conservation groups the new Act would not have been passed. Kathryn continues “ORCA shares data on whales and dolphins distribution and abundance, collected by its volunteer survey team, to help inform these kind of decisions”.

As the government strives to use marine wind farms as alternative renewable energy sources the environmental consequences are yet to be quantified. Artificial reef systems created by alien structures will afford marine life valuable breeding and nursing areas. Environmental protection must now be given to these offshore habitats. By enforcing suitable ‘no fish’ radii, species will be allowed to mature.

On land, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act wildlife crimes are under policed. With only 9 police officers nationally, the question arises whether the new Marine and Coastal Access Act will befall the same fate.

More about ORCA here.

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