Three years after England adopted legislation for the management of the marine environment, and two years after Scotland followed suit, a Marine Bill for Northern Ireland is finally before the Assembly.
Willie Clark MLA, a member of the Environment Committee at Stormont, has described the bill as the most important piece of legislation the current Assembly will consider.
Mr Clark is probably not far from the truth. It is vital for the future of both Northern Ireland’s economy and the marine environment that this bill is got right. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that the version tabled will do the job.
The bill is underpinned by two main principles – the development of an integrated system of marine planning to ensure that our seas can accommodate all the uses to which they are put and the establishment of a UK-wide network of protected areas.
The marine planning provisions of the bill are deficient in that public authorities can too easily depart from an adopted marine plan. This undermines the purpose of having a marine plan, namely that different user groups – energy, infrastructure, fisheries, aquaculture, transport, leisure and more – should have a high degree of confidence about the range of activities likely to be permitted in each area.
There is also a real danger that this section of the bill will put the UK in breach of its international obligations to provide access to justice in environmental matters due to the draconian curbs placed on the ability to seek a judicial review of a marine plan.
New powers to designate marine conservation zones are welcome. With the potential for a court to impose an unlimited fine for causing damage to the site, taking into account any resulting financial gain, there is potential to put in place a high level of protection for sensitive habitats, contributing to the recovery of fish stocks.
Again, there are problems with the bill as proposed. Public authorities have a great deal of freedom to authorise activities damaging to the protected areas and in the event of damage caused by fishing, the only possible sanction in many cases would be a fine for breach of bye-law, which is limited to £5,000. Northern Ireland should also consider following Scotland’s lead in allowing designation of MCZs because of their interest to scientists, historians or archaeologists.
A further concern about the provisions for marine conservation is that the enactment of those relating to MCZs is dependent on subordinate legislation, which may mean a delay of years. This would not only be bad news for the marine environment, it could leave Northern Ireland open to legal action in the European Court if failure to designate MCZs contributes to failure to ensure our seas achieve good environmental status by 2020.
Finally, while the Marine Bill aims to put in place a joined-up approach to the management of our seas, two key aspects are left out: in contrast to the equivalent legislation in Great Britain, fisheries management is not included and there is no provision for a unified management body. While the Green Party favours an independent marine management organisation, as in England and Wales, even a single authority within government, the Scottish approach, would be a step in the right direction.
I will be working with the Green Party team at Stormont in the coming weeks as we work to ensure the necessary amendments are made to ensure the Marine Bill lives up to its considerable potential.