SPS Salt Marshes Conference Conclusions and Summing Up

Posted on 08 Jan 2009

IAN TOWNEND, Research Director, HR Wallingford

“I am going to try to summarise the key points arising from today’s Conference, and provide some pointers towards aspects that I think require further discussion.

What is the status quo?  Many marshes are stated to be in unfavourable condition relative to when they were designated.  There is, however, a much deeper question as to whether they are, or ever were, in equilibrium.  What is the benchmark for judging change against?  That is a much more difficult question to answer.

There are a number of things influencing saltmarsh dynamics and their degradation and retreat – it is a very complex issue.  Although we know a great deal about many sites, disentangling the main causes of change at any one site is still a major challenge.

What can we do about it?  We have had a broad ranging discussion today.  There are essentially two options: 1) Provide space for the system to move landward as sea level rises. 2) Increase the sediment supply.  (Events in the Venice lagoon show that, in a fixed space, decreasing the sediment supply will reduce the marsh area.  If that is reversed, the process is reversed.) This is not about maintaining form, but about maintaining function.  How we mix and match those two options will vary around the coast according to the local conditions.  It is also important to recognise that there are different timescales associated with the different kinds of action we might take.

Can we afford it?  Sir David King, the Government’s previous Chief Scientist, stressed climate change as the number one priority.  The current Chief Scientist, Professor John Beddington, said in his first major speech that although climate change is very important, food security may be more important.  What we are already seeing around the country is a significant hike in land prices as a result of various global influences, and a change in attitude among farmers with regard to the priorities attached to set aside versus agricultural production.  We must look at that in the context of wanting sustainability and the local production of food that may further exacerbate such a change.  So there are other things that influence the answer to the question ‘can we afford it?’ and other clashes in terms of social and political interests.  Our discussion today has ranged over issues such as the political will to make changes and the balance with regard to the social and economic costs we are prepared to pay for gains and losses in saltmarshes that we might see as a consequence of such changes.

And so it is a very complex issue.  All we can do is to continue to debate it in Forums like this, provide a valuable opportunity to debate the issues in order to tease out the various perspectives and begin to establish a consensus on the preferred way forward for particular areas and sites.

How do we go forward?  Earlier today I highlighted some of the research we need to do to improve our predictive capabilities, to try to be able to say whether a marsh is in equilibrium or not, and what is the likely change that would result as a consequence of future projections of climate change.  From a brief review of current scientific knowledge it would seem that the following research would be of particular benefit to the current debate:

1) Focussed field data collection to support further development of existing models     * Short term to describe biomass variations (1-2 years)     * Long-term to confirm response to SLR and NTC (>20 years) 2) Process studies     * associations between physical, chemical and biological parameters (e.g. sediment density, strength, sub-surface drainage, invertebrate diversity and abundance, halophyte community structure) 3) Continued Model Development    * Extend models to 2-D: how do marshes interact with wider adjustments of intertidal zone?    * Understanding of marshes in spatially constrained environments such as estuaries

There would also be some benefit from trying to disentangle what we want to do in terms of ecosystem dynamics and the benefit to the particular location of making change, from the legal requirements.  The legal requirement that we have to do this because the law says so tends to blind the discussion and, actually, there are very good reasons for wanting to keep saltmarshes and mudflats in existence.  Mudflats are said to be five times more productive than the best agricultural land anywhere in the world.  Therefore it is a fundamental part of our food chain and we will lose it at our peril.  Saltmarshes have value as nurseries for aquaculture, as grazing areas, and so on, which we do not fully recognise in the way that we do our economic evaluations, and we need to bring in that broader context in order that we can properly value these inter-tidal areas.

We need to review some of our administrative arrangements.  One of the difficulties at present is that, whilst we might have very good ideas about where we could do managed realignment that we want to treat as compensation, actually sorting out the procedural order for getting agreements and trying to deliver the habitat measures in a timescale consistent with the development scheme, and yet still being able to count in the habitat as compensation in  the way the law requires, is very difficult.

There are some options to consider: Land banking – this needs further investigation as to how it would be secured, and a number of other legal issues.  There may be a way of doing these things and so disentangling the creation of habitats from trying to do it simultaneously with development schemes.  The work that the Environment Agency talked about at the Conference is possibly one of the routes for contributing to this.

We have heard about other mechanisms, for example compulsory purchase, to meet various targets. It is not an ideal way forward and there are very serious problems in advancing compulsory purchase, because of the way that the Habitats Directive is written.  However, such issues need to be explored further in order to find workable solutions for the Solent.”

Issues sometimes get bogged down because a specific organisation is promoting the initiative.  Is there a role for the Solent to have its own mechanism for delivering habitat compensation, a private habitat creation organisation – not-for-profit – to facilitate the needs of the Environment Agency, ports, landowners, etc, in a way that is less controversial because it is trying to deliver for the whole rather than for a particular organisation?  This may also provide a mechanism for ensuring greater engagement with the range of stakeholders in identifying and promoting solutions that collectively are seen as being appropriate for the Solent.”

SHEELAGH DE CARTERET EVANS, Chairman, Solent Protection Society

“The Conference has given me and, I hope, all of us some very serious food for thought.  I knew that the issue of saltmarshes and their erosion and protection was complex but I had not realised, until today, quite how complex.  Also I had not realised how many values are placed on saltmarshes, not just their biodiversity but also, for example, their role in flood protection.

Any management of saltmarshes has to be integrated with and complementary to all its uses.  Any approach has to be strategic, needing strategic policy objectives, and collaborative, because there are so many interested parties and the legislation is so complex.  No matter how hard we try the legislation will never be simple, because the issues are so complex.  The approach also has to be pragmatic, or it will never be delivered.  And it must involve local communities, and this is a real issue that the SPS must think about in terms of: how do we get a strategic policy applied or understood in those communities?

Because habitats tend to be extensive we cannot look at isolated pockets; there is a minimum size of habitat that has to be looked at for sensible management.  I think education is very important in developing policy and achieving ownership of policy by the wider community.  By education I mean not just standard, formal education but also broader communication, PR and marketing, putting across complex issues and trying to get feedback.

We await the draft Shoreline Management Plans with great interest.  They are crucial documents with regard to the management of saltmarshes.

Ian Townend has referred to how we take matters forward, given the complexities of the issues raised today.  The SPS must think long and hard about the Conference Proceedings, and we would be very interested in feedback from delegates, not only with regard to issues raised by the Conference but also on the value of the Conference and whether it is a useful role for the SPS to undertake.  We felt that one objective in organising the Conference was to bring together people who are concerned at a personal level together with those dealing with national and international policy.  So often it is very difficult in developing national policy to have an effective dialogue with those responsible for implementing it on the ground, and so an interchange like we have had today is very useful.

In closing I would like to thank Alan Inder for organising the Conference, Judy Davies and Susan Preston Davis and other SPS members for their assistance, all the speakers and panel members, and all delegates for their contribution to a very worthwhile event.”