Lune Estuary in line for greater protection

Sunderland Point on the Lune estuary, close to Morecambe Bay.  You reach it via a single-track road from Overton across a marsh that is flooded at high tide. Graham Wilkinson, from Chipping
Sunderland Point on the Lune estuary, close to Morecambe Bay. You reach it via a single-track road from Overton across a marsh that is flooded at high tide. Graham Wilkinson, from Chipping

Proposals to designate the Lune Estuary as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) have been submitted to the government.

A new report from the Wildlife Trusts called The Case For More Marine Conservation Zones identifies the Lune Estuary in Morecambe Bay as a special habitat that needs protection.

It is one of 48 areas put forward by the organisation, which if accepted would become part of a network of protected wildlife habitats.

One of the remaining major gaps in the network is in the Irish Sea and the Wildlife Trusts want the public to support their campaign by becoming friends of MCZs.

Dr Emily Baxter, Senior Marine Conservation Officer for the North West Wildlife Trusts said: “Mud habitats in the Irish Sea are home to diverse communities of marine life. You may think deep muddy plains would look like deserts but they have the potential to be as diverse as rainforests on land. These undersea landscapes have already been damaged, fish stocks have declined and species are at risk.

“Three deep water mud sites were put forward to Government in 2012, as recommended Marine Conservation Zones, but have not yet been designated. These sites are needed to complete the network of protected areas in the Irish Sea.”

The list of sites includes three off the coast of Lancashire and North Merseyside.

The designation of these sites would afford protection to important smelt (a species of small fish) spawning and nursery grounds in the Lune, Wyre and Ribble Estuaries and the protection of the ancient peat and clay exposures that are home to the prehistoric footprints on the Sefton Coast.

The report is published in advance of the government’s plans to announce a third and final phase of Marine Conservation Zones – the Government plans to consult the public in 2017 and designate the chosen zones in 2018.

Dr Baxter added: “The government designated 50 zones in the first two phases – only four of these were in the Irish Sea. Unfortunately, this does not yet provide us with the comprehensive network needed to enable marine wildlife to thrive once more.” We need to have numerous zones, in the right locations, representing a range of our special species and habitats, and they have to be close enough together. We hope that the Government will aim high and hit the 48 mark for this last phase.”

Each spring-summer the ‘Irish Sea Gyre’ is established in this area. This current system is caused by summer-warmed waters rotating around a dome of cold water sitting deep in the Irish Sea basin. Nutrients are retained causing plankton blooms, which then provide food for herring, sprat and sandeels. Manx shearwaters, guillemots, puffins, razorbills, and gannets are attracted by the fish; some traveling long distances every summer to forage in the same area. Basking sharks, whales and dolphins also travel to this hotspot to feed. The deep muddy habitats are vital in helping to drive this system.

Last year a humpback whale was sighted in the Irish Sea, along with pods of over 100 bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, basking sharks and leatherback turtles.

And around the Irish Sea our estuaries and beaches are also brimming with life – fish, internationally important numbers of birds and the creatures in the mud that they feed on.

The North West Wildlife Trusts say this is an unprecedented opportunity for the Government to create an effective network of protected areas at sea – it would put us at the forefront of worldwide marine conservation. Designating the additional 48 wild havens as Marine Conservation Zones would go some way to guaranteeing a future for the extraordinarily diverse natural landscapes that exist beneath the waves off our coast.

The 48 areas proposed by The Wildlife Trusts nationally will be the final gap-fillers in the ‘blue belt’ of marine protection and vary from seagrass beds in the south, to deep sea mud in the Irish Sea that is brimming with burrowing animals including sea pens and the incredibly long-lived ocean quahog – a clam species which can live up to 500 years.

Emily concludes: “We will be working hard to ensure the third and final phase of sites is ambitious enough to give our seas the protection they deserve. But we need the help of the public. We know that they support a strong network of protected areas at sea and we want the Government to acknowledge this too, in order to restore decades of decline in the health of our seas and enable recovery in future.”

You can show your support for Marine Conservation Zones in the Irish Sea by becoming a Friend of Marine Conservation Zones at: www.irishsea.org/muddyMCZfriends.