The Conservation of Nationally Important Marine Geoscience Sites: a feasibility study
(2003)
Prepared for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee by the Centre for Applied Marine Science, School of Ocean Sciences, University of Wales, Bangor, LL59 5AB
Furze, M.
© JNCC 2003

Introduction

 
The feasibility study was undertaken by the Centre for Applied Marine Science, part of the School of Ocean Sciences, University of Wales Bangor on behalf of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee Contract Number F90-01-600. These six full reports follow the earlier preliminary report summarising the conclusions and recommendation contained herein. It should be noted, however, that in the case of Report A3 and Report A6, the conclusion and recommendations made in this final draft differ to those originally suggested in the preliminary document.
 
The marine environment around the United Kingdom is characterised by many geological and geomorphological features and dynamic processes not found above the level of low tide. Marine specific processes act to generate landforms for which little evidence exists terrestrially. In addition, geological structures and sediments exposed on land are continued offshore and show, in some cases different features, or established characteristics better, than their terrestrial counterparts. Importantly, the continental shelf around Britain has been witness to considerable changes in sea-level throughout the Quaternary period linked to glacially influenced changes in global marine water volumes. As such, much of the sedimentological and environmental evidence attesting to conditions during marine low-stands now lies within the subtidal zone. Given this range of geodiversity, and the great advances made by the current terrestrial Geological Conservation Review (GCR) in conserving Britain's Earth heritage, there is a clear case for a marine geoscience conservation programme to enable protection of important offshore sites now and in the future. Any such initiative will, however, be made difficult by the dispersed and fragmentary nature of marine geological datasets. If a conservation programme is to conserve a range of sites that are truly representative of the marine environment then there is a clear and pressing need for directed research to be conducted in support of such an initiative. Report A1 reviews the benefits of marine Earth science conservation and assesses what gains in knowledge could be achieved by instigating a marine geoscience conservation programme and which subject areas may benefit the most. It also assesses the amount of information available to support such an initiative.
 
Research is especially needed to determine the susceptibility of different sites to threats specific to the marine environment. Given the dynamic nature of the continental shelf, threats to site integrity can act to cause degradation remotely, perturbations to sediment transport pathways and wave-current dynamics resulting in site degradation at a distance from the damaging activity. This is especially the case where large scale seabed construction or sediment extraction is taking place. Report A2 analyses the potential threats facing marine Earth heritage sites in the context of site dependency on active marine processes and their susceptibility to far-field effects.
 
Existing coastal geomorphology GCR sites represent a special case in terms of their conservation value as, although they are defined as being above low-water, they are dependent to a considerable degree on process operating in the marine environment for their evolution and maintenance. In analysing the fifteen coastal geomorphology GCR sites within the Irish Sea Basin, is noted that those depositional features highly dependent on sediment supply from offshore or alongshore would derive the greatest potential benefit from possible GCR site boundary extension into the submarine environment. However only for a very few sites, even within those categories, does a sufficient case exist for such boundary extension as many sites suffer from a lack of data regarding sediment sources and their dependency on offshore oceanographic dynamics. Without sufficient data it is impossible to make an accurate assessment of the potential benefits of GCR site boundary extension subtidally. Especially in the case of complex dynamic assemblage sites where landforms currently conserved under the GCR represent purely the subaerial components of dynamic interlinked landform systems, there does exist a case for extending boundaries below low water to encompass the whole landform assemblage rather than just conserving part. Report A3 examines the case for coastal geomorphology site GCR boundary extension into the marine environment on site-by-site basis using the Irish Sea as an example.
 
If a programme of marine geoscience conservation is to be undertaken, it needs to be based on a well reasoned site selection rationale constructed around certain fundamental principles of Earth heritage conservation. In examining the existing principles and methodology of the Geological Conservation Review, it is considered that those existing principles and approaches broadly apply in a marine context with only little alteration. However, given the dynamic nature of the marine environment, the potential scale of some bedforms, their reliance on far-field processes and the tendency for complex interacting bedform systems to develop, a modified site classification scheme is proposed to that of the GCR. A "nested sites" approach is suggested accommodating individual sites of low dependency on processes operating in their environs, active sites highly dependent on processes operating in their environs, and larger dynamic systems or geotopes. Features are conserved either as spatially constrained first-order sites of high conservation status, or nested within larger second-order lower status conservation zones. It is considered that this approach is the most appropriate given the action of far-field threats, enabling truly representative conservation of the highly varied geodiversity found within our waters, whilst at the same time keeping the potential for conflict of interest to a minimum. It is also suggested that a numerical approach be integrated into site evaluation and selection. Such an approach would be more transparent and was favoured by many of the consultees, being considered less subjective and qualitative than the existing site selection methodology. Report A4 provides an assessment of the validity of applying the GCR criteria to selecting sites in the offshore area as well as recommending a rationale for site selection.
 
As stated, the lack and variability of suitable data in support of a marine geoscience conservation initiative is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the initiation of such a programme. In Report A5, however, an analysis of relevant data sources is conducted. A list of selected data sources including brief descriptions is included in Annex 2.
 
Based on the methodology recommended in Report A4, the existing GCR thematic blocks can broadly be applied to the marine environment. However, there exists a need for four new, marine specific, thematic blocks, these being regionally defined Marine Geomorphology blocks. In addition, several existing blocks (regional coastal geomorphology blocks, mass-movement, regional Quaternary blocks) require redefinition to include subtidal and marine aspects if they are to be applicable offshore. Report A6 provides an outline of the new thematic blocks and proposes modifications to existing ones.
 
Following the feasibility study, the university of Bangor was commissioned to implement their recommendations in relation to the Irish Sea and develop a list of nationally important geological and geomorphological areas for the Irish Sea (see Furze and Roberts, 2004)
 
 
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Please cite as: Furze, M., (2003), The Conservation of Nationally Important Marine Geoscience Sites: a feasibility study