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Wildlife experts call for alternative development option for Falmouth Docks to be considered

22nd February 2012

Cornwall Wildlife Trust, the local charity that protects wildlife on land and at sea, has announced that it supports an alternative option to develop Falmouth Docks which would save part of a nationally rare marine habitat. This alternative option is outlined in the Docks’ own Masterplan and initial estimates shows it could provide the economic boost the Docks need, without dredging. The Trust supports this option from the information seen at this stage.

Snake pipefish on maerl bed photo by Rob Spray.jpg

The current development proposal for the Docks includes dredging of the Falmouth Harbour which would create a deep water channel in the approach to the docks, potentially allowing super cruise-liners to dock at Falmouth. However permission for the dredge was not granted because it would cause unavoidable damage to the nationally rare maerl beds that exist in the harbour area.

Tom Hardy, Marine Conservation Officer for Cornwall Wildlife Trust said; “The maerl beds in the Fal and the Helford are the only known maerl beds in Cornwall. This area is in fact one of the few places where maerl beds exist in UK waters, making them very special. The alternative option, known as ‘Option B’ in the Masterplan, would avoid the environmental damage to the maerl beds but still enable the facilities at the Docks to be developed.”

The development would include building a new marina, wharves replaced and refurbished, improvements for superyachts, building of a multi-storey car park, the Castle Drive site developed for residential uses and other areas of the site developed for Port-related uses.

Maerl is a rare species. It is a coral-like seaweed and is made of a hard shell-like substance. Like coral it is fragile and very slow growing. It creates a very rare habitat known as ‘maerl beds’ that can be up to 8000 years old, these provide a vital nursery ground for commercial fish stocks.

Over hundreds of years, layers of maerl are put down forming these deep beds which are topped by a thin layer of living maerl (which is why it can mistakenly appear to be entirely dead). Living maerl is present on the maerl beds in the Falmouth Harbour area. These beds form a latticework of nooks and crannies providing a nursery ground for commercially important young fish and shell fish such as cod, haddock, lobsters and crabs. These nursery grounds help to ensure a long-term future for our fishing industry, which contributes greatly to Falmouth’s and Cornwall’s economy. The proposed dredge would require some of the maerl beds to be removed which ultimately will destroy them and so destroy the vital nursery ground they provide for young fish as well as other wildlife that thrive in the beds.

The preliminary economic estimates for the alternative option of developing the docks without dredging, which features in the Docks’ Masterplan, shows it would bring economic growth for Falmouth. It would create over 2000 new jobs and bring in over £100 million of income, according to the Masterplan. However this option has not yet been put forward for further investigation and detailed economic assessment, despite the current proposals which include dredging being rejected over a year ago.

There were five development options listed in the Docks’ Masterplan, which all had initial economic assessments, but only two of them received a detailed independent economic assessment from Cornwall Council. These were the ‘No development’ option, which in the Trust’s opinion is clearly not the way forward, and the proposed ‘Develop the Docks and undertake a dredge’ option. Cornwall Wildlife Trust are urging decision makers to also fully economically assess the option to ‘Develop the Docks without a dredge’. This would allow the two options of development with or without dredging to be fairly compared. At present the increased economic value of the dredge alone has not been assessed. Furthermore, there has been no guarantee from the super cruise-liner companies that they will definitely dock in Falmouth even if the channel was deep enough - at present it is estimated that there are few cruise liners in the world that can not currently access the harbour due to their size. The Dock’s Masterplan states that the market for cruise vessels which can currently access the harbour will continue to steadily grow.

Cornwall Wildlife Trust understands that Falmouth Docks must be developed to ensure a bright economic future for the town, and is supportive of development done in the right way, in the right place. Therefore the Trust believes the alternative option which does not require a dredge must be fully economically assessed and plans made to get the development started, so the Docks and local people can reap the benefits as soon as possible.

Tom Hardy said; “The current Docks development proposals do state that the maerl beds will be relocated to another place in the Fal. Although this kind of mitigation can work for other habitats, unfortunately maerl beds are extremely unlikely to remain intact if they are moved because they are so fragile. This means the nooks and crannies where the young fish live will no longer exist, and the top layer of living maerl is very unlikely to stay on the top after it has been dug up, meaning the maerl will die altogether. Scientific research is currently in place to see if this mitigation will work and the Trust supports this. However the Trust is very doubtful that it will be successful due to the way in which maerl beds are formed.”

In an unusual turn of events, the current Docks development proposals may also have serious consequences for threatened wildlife around the UK and possibly Europe. This is because the refusal to grant permission for the dredge, on environmental grounds, has been used as a reason to review a critical piece of EU legislation which protects our most rare and threatened wildlife. It is this legislation, which has been in place in the UK since 1994, which protects the maerl beds, and therefore the reason the dredge was not granted permission.

The legislation, known as the ‘Habitats Directive’ was developed by EU members, including the UK, to protect some of our most vital places for wildlife across Europe. This includes the Fal (including the Falmouth Harbour area), which was recognised as being of extreme importance for wildlife and as such was designated as a Special Area of Conservation in 2005, primarily because of its rare maerl beds. Special Areas of Conservation are so vital for wildlife that they are protected by law – the highest level of protection any wildlife site can receive.

If pressure to allow the dredge results in the laws that protect our environment being weakened, this could result in permission for the dredge to be granted. This would not only destroy part of this incredibly important marine habitat, it would also leave other vital habitats open to development such as our nationally significant heathlands on The Lizard, the stunning north coast at St Agnes and the wet woodlands at Goss Moor. All are Special Areas of Conservation and are protected, for now. If a U-turn is made, this could set a precedent for development of other environmentally sensitive areas.

Tom Hardy said, “Cornwall Wildlife Trust always seeks to find ways in which development can happen without negative consequences for wildlife. The Trust works with developers to ensure that developments are not only good for our economy, but also good for our environment. We are asking that the Government’s review of the Habitat Directive does not in any way reduce the protection of the UK’s most important habitats and species, including the maerl beds in the Fal.”

Tony Whitehead, RSPB spokesperson for the south west said: ‘What concerns the RSPB is not so much the holding of a review in itself. Of course there's always room for cutting through red tape and needless bureaucracy. More, our concern is that the reason for the review is because part of the Government is viewing our best wildlife sites as a blockage to economic growth.

We recognise that people are finding it difficult to understand why it is necessary to protect the maerl beds, this 'seaweed'. But it's not just seaweed. Like it's not just ‘estuary’ or not just ‘heathland’ or ‘woodland’. These sites, these Special Areas of Conservation, are the very best wildlife sites we have in Europe.

The Government has a big challenge in steering us out of economic difficulties. But there is widespread acceptance that this must not be achieved at the expense of the environment by weakening vital legislation, not least because the environment is crucial to the UK's economy, and nowhere more so than in the West Country. As Defra Minister of State Caroline Spelman said last week “If we fail to protect our natural resources we'll make long term economic growth impossible.” ’

If you share Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s view you can help by emailing or posting a letter to your MP urging the Government not to weaken our environmental laws.