Under plans proclaimed by the government on Thursday, the UK’s sealife is to be protected by 31 new conservation areas with the aim of preventing trawling and dredging activities liable to destroy life on the sea bed. Ministers have dismissed advice, however, to establish 127 areas, including those where there no activity would have been permitted; it led to campaigners describing the plan as a “bitter disappointment” and “pitiful”.

Environment minister Richard Benyon, “The UK recognizes one of the richest marine environments in the world – we have to ensure that it remains that way. […] We need to get it right – it’s all about appropriating the right sites in the right locations, to keep our seas sustainable, healthy and productive, and ensuring the maintenance of the right balance between industry and conservation.”

These additional 31 zones will cover an area the size of Cornwall three times over, but they are expected to permit continued fishing to a certain extent. An £8m assessment by the government’s own advisers in the field of science, recommended the establishment of 127 marine conservation areas, and 58 are said to be under severe threat, requiring immediate protection.

Benyon said: “For a lot of these areas, our scientific evidence base just failed to be sufficient.” He commented that another £3.5m was being spent in the gathering of further evidence which could assist with the designation of more areas at some point in the future.

Benyon also cited the importance of the fishing industry, the dredging of sand and gravel and marine renewable energy. “We have managed to pull this off at a time when the economy is in very bad shape. It is proportionate – no-one will be put out of business.”

By Alan