Swathes of the Sussex coastline will remain unprotected from fishing and dredging after the government ignored the advice of maritime experts.
Conservationists have attacked officials for shelving measures to protect some of the county’s most endangered sea life.
The Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs was expected to designate 127 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ), as recommended by sea life experts.
But after months of consideration, they released plans for just 31 – including three of a proposed ten in Sussex.
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) branded Defra “shameful” with Sussex Wildlife Trust calling them “feeble” for ignoring the expert advice.
The zones are being brought in to protect ‘at risk’ areas from damage done by fishing along the seabed or dredging.
In particular, there are now fears for the future of the area to the east of Beachy Head.
The stretch is home to the delicate Royal Sovereign Shoal reef as well as short snouted seahorses and rare native oysters.
MCS biodiversity policy officer, Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, said: “The decision not to include Royal Sovereign Shoals in the process is flabbergasting, as it was agreed as an obvious choice to all stakeholders at the Balanced Seas meetings as far back as 2010.
“The area also contains the richest area of seabed in the nearshore environment of the entire coast of Sussex – it’s a no-brainer.”
Dr Tony Whitbread, chair of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, added: “I am bitterly disappointed by the government’s feeble attempt at marine nature conservation.
“The network was designed to ensure that we don’t end up with isolated and vulnerable sites and to ensure that the wide range of marine habitats found in UK seas are protected.”
Pagham Harbour, near Chichester, and Kingmere, which is six miles off the Littlehampton coast, were all approved for protection.
The maritime area stretching from Brighton to Beachy Head was also included in the protected zones.
However, among those rejected were Selsey Bill and Hounds off the West Sussex coast and Utopia, which is 10 miles south of Beachy Head.
The former is home to short-snouted seahorses, squat lobsters and crabs and also an occasional foraging spot for Bottlenose dolphins. The latter has large areas of reef and is home to vast numbers of cuttlefish.
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt added: “This shows a complete lack of ambition and no duty of care to the 59 sites that are at severe risk of damage, let alone the 127 sites that government was advised would create a network of marine conservation zones.
“It’s pitiful. We cannot delay protection. We wouldn’t stand by and let wildflower meadows and ancient forests be dug up and cleared, and yet heavy fishing gear is dragged across all kinds of habitats, destroying large swathes of the seabed with very little control.”
The government is calling on campaigners to give their views on the plans and they have not ruled out further MCZs in the future.
Environment Minister Richard Benyon said: “We have to get this right. Designating the right sites in the right places, so that our seas are sustainable, productive and healthy, and to ensure that the right balance is struck between conservation and industry.
“We have carefully considered the evidence, and these 31 sites are the ones that are suitable to be designated next year.”
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