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Falmouth maerl – the canary in George Osborne’s coal mine

Matthew Chatfield
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Maerl. What’s that then? Chances are, you don’t know what maerl is, or why anyone else might care. Unless you live in Falmouth – in which case you have probably found out quite a lot about maerl recently. It’s a rare marine habitat which, like many other such habitats, is protected in the UK by European designations. And it was the Falmouth maerl which Chancellor George Osborne was referring to when he said last year “We will make sure that gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.”

Maerl beds © Keith Hiscock

The maerl beds in Falmouth are internationally important for biodiversity and locally valued for their benefits to the fishing industry, but their fate is particularly interesting nationally because European protected habitats like these are very much in George Osborne’s crosshairs at the moment. Is he right to decide that economic benefits trump environmental sustainability? Is the economic imperative strong enough to make such fundamental changes, or is Osborne simply indulging in quixotic anti-European political posturing? Maerl is a collective term for several species of red seaweed, with hard, chalky skeletons. It is rock hard, but brittle. Maerl forms a very complex structure providing crevices and shelter for many other marine plants and animals including some rare ones that are not found elsewhere. They take thousands of years to develop, but can easily be destroyed – making them, like ancient woodland, an irreplaceable resource once removed. Maerl can form large beds, when the conditions are right ” a fast tidal flow or sufficient wave action to remove fine sediments, but not strong enough to break the brittle maerl branches. Within these beds, layers of dead maerl very slowly build up with a thin layer of pink, living maerl on the top. In England there are approximately 15km2 of maerl habitat – representing just 0.03% of English waters. Most of this is near Falmouth, in Cornwall. (Reference: Natural England) In Falmouth, since 2009 plans have been developed to dredge a much deeper channel in the harbour, to allow bigger ships to visit and boosting economic growth. But there’s a problem. The channel would go through some of the ancient, protected maerl beds. At present, the plans are stalled, awaiting a resolution to the problem. But some people think that the need for jobs and money is important enough that environmental concerns should take a back seat now. Sir John Banham, former chief of the Confederation of British Industry and chairman of the Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is a leading proponent of the plan. He was disappointed by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) refusing to grant consent on grounds of environmental concerns – going even further than the Chancellor in his censure.

Sir John Banham

Sir John Banham

The MMO are unaccountable bureaucrats who need to think very carefully about who they are working for and who pays their salaries. I am not making my contribution to their salaries for them to make life difficult for the people of Falmouth. What I am expecting from them is to find solutions to the situation and not indulge in negative bureaucratic foot-dragging. They need to wake up and smell the coffee. We’re not just talking about financial benefits for Falmouth ” we’re talking about the hinterland too. We are in an era of austerity and we desperately need new jobs. (This is Cornwall)

Strong words. Luckily for the maerl, we have the greenest government ever rooting for it at the moment. But it looks like a showdown is on the way – so should we care about a few coral beds in Falmouth? I think we probably should, because this scheme is the bellwether that will show us just how far the government is willing to go when it weighs up continued economic growth against protected habitats. The outcome of this particular battle will have ramifications well beyond Falmouth. “If this project is allowed to go ahead, that could set an appalling precedent for all the other protected sites we have in the UK,” said Tom Hardy, a marine conservation officer with the Cornwall Wildlife Trust which opposes the Falmouth dredging plan. “Britain’s marine environment is woefully poorly protected as it is. This could open it up to all sorts of new developments justified on economic needs. It is very worrying.” (Guardian) It’s a worrying time for many industrialists, and those whose livelihoods depend on continued economic growth. But it’s also a difficult time for protected areas. Perhaps not surprisingly, during the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s some of the biggest economic development schemes in Britain’s history took place. At the same time, the network of protected sites, and the EU legislation to protect them, was being put in place. This certainly did prevent some developments from going ahead (one near me was Dibden Bay, finally refused in 2004). But a great many others proceeded, often including work to improve the environment elsewhere. In some cases, arguably the schemes actually benefited the environment overall. And few could say that the economy of the 1990s was stifled or held back by the introduction of all this legislation which is now being described as gold-plated. Yes, that’s right, ‘gold-plated’, like my rapidly-shrinking pension. After the economic crisis came in 2007, there was some serious recrimination – which still goes on today. One of the few things I do not recall being identified as a cause of the collapse is a thriving, sustainable environment. What I do remember, by contrast, is the hard work undertaken over the last 20 years and latterly within the European laws, by many developers and environmentalists to successfully demonstrate that it is possible both to have beneficial development and conserve and enhance the environment. Reading the mounting rhetoric around the Falmouth maerl case makes me fear that George Osborne is preparing to cast aside all this good work, and some irreplaceable heritage. And for what? For the dubious political advantage of defying Europe, and a short-term economic gain.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

2 thoughts on “Falmouth maerl – the canary in George Osborne’s coal mine

  • Ian Shield

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting the destruction of mother nature, but the most important species that lives around the Carrick Roads is us.

    I have commercially fished in the Roads, and worked in the Docks, both of which have kept the wolf from the door. Anyone of the fishermen has seen more tons of maerl than the whole of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust team will in their entire lives.

    There are too many none productive people in this country, sitting in warm offces, telling the people who create the money that funds them, that they should stop.

    It was people like me, working on the oysters and in the docks, that payed the tax, that allowed Tom Hardy and his colleague Ruth Williams to goto university and study the enviroment.

    Mearl is not unique to the Roads, it has survived hundreds of years of dredging and anchoring. It will continue to do so without any meddling from CWT, something that I’m not sure can be said of working class people who live around the harbour.

    If we had plates in our lips, and lived in the rainforest Tom Hardy and Ruth Williams would do gap years to study us, and help preserve our way of life.

    Instead they wont be happy till all of Cornwall is a conservation zone, with them installed as the custodians on a nice fat salary.

  • Well said, Ranger.

    The trouble is not just that George Osborne and co appear to have no moral understanding that humans have a responsibility to other living beings.

    It is perhaps even worse that George Osborne and his pals don’t have a model of the world that actually fits the facts.

    He and many other politicians (and they’re not all in the Conservative Party) believe that that weird human invention, money, is more real than anything else, and that the living world depends on money, not the other way round.

    Sane people understand the craziness of removing all reasonable controls on human behaviour in order to ‘make money’ when the result is that the conditions which allow human beings to live are destroyed in the process.

    There are two things I’d really like to understand, though.

    How do people like George Osborne come to believe the obviously nonsensical idea that they can live without the support of other living beings?

    And what – if anything – can be done by the sane rest of us to persuade George Osborne and co that they need to change their insane belief system?


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