I am not usually one to steer clear of important environmental issues but there is one big one happening outside my house at the moment that I have kept very quiet about. The dredging of the Goodwin Sands. I have kept quiet because I want to make sure I say exactly the right thing in what is a very complicated situation.
Over the past few months I’ve spoken to some very knowledgeable people and I feel a little better prepared to say my bit. It's a rather lengthy and its complicated, and it does only looks at environmental concerns as that is my area of interest, not historical ones, but I've done my best to outline the siutation as I see it, so please bare with me.
The Goodwin Sands are intertidal sand banks stretching 12 miles down the English Channel. They are an important haul out site for grey seals and a breeding habitat for fish species and marine invertebrates. I’ve known them all my life, made films about them for Autumnwatch and can see them from my house. I care about them.
Recently Dover Harbour Board (DHB) has applied to dredge a relatively small area of the total sands for the aggregate they need to re-develop the harbour. It is a cheap source of what they need and its close by.
An initial reaction to this is – no way!
The sands are on the list to become a designated Marine Conservation Zone and their importance for helping create joined up protected ecosystem around our coast is really important. As climate change takes hold we need large marine protected areas, with corridors between them to help wildlife move about and cope with the changes. We need a strong robust ecosystem for all life.
However, climate change is a pivotal point here because Dover Harbour Board argue that if they do not get the aggregate from there, it will have to come from somewhere else. The development is after all going ahead no matter what, it has passed planning.
That “somewhere else” will be further away and it will create a much bigger carbon footprint for the development. A bigger carbon footprint will mean a bigger impact on climate change.
The more climate change we have, the bigger challenge our wildlife faces, particularly somewhere like the Goodwin Sands which are likely to disappear under the rising waters of a warming world.
In short, DHB seem to say the long-term goals of reducing climate change out rank protecting wildlife in the immediate. It is also cheaper for them, which is very convenient.
In response, it could be argued that in this case the sands are just too important and that the wildlife needs of today, right now, out ranks climate change of tomorrow and what difference really will this moving the dredge make to reducing CO2 output? Save the Sands!
The divisions are set.
But how and where do you draw the line here between local needs and global ones?
If everyone thinks their case is more important than climate change, then we push everyone to shunt the problem elsewhere and ramp up global carbon footprint regardless. Just to save our patch.
And do the sands really need saving?
The Goodwin Sands have been dredged before and they have seemingly recovered. Could the same not apply now? It is a constantly shifting and mobile habitat this is used to disturbance. A big storm could be as disturbing as a dredger to a sand bank and the sand dwelling species that live there are evolved to cope with this, to a degree.
What about the seals? Will they not suffer?
In reality, probably not. They will more than likely be disturbed very little, being used to heavy shipping traffic and marine noise, perhaps they will move a few miles away, to another haul out site of which there are plenty, and return once the work is done.
I’ve spoken to independent environmental consultants that have nothing to do with this argument. They see these above thoughts as sound statements. And they see the reduced CO2 emissions important.
These ideas are also ones that Dover Harbour Board has been keen to promote.
Does this mean OK - go ahead - dredge?
No. It does not.
There has been a big problem with HOW Dover Harbour Board have made conclusions to dredge the sands.
From what I understand from more learned people than myself, they have rather jumped to this conclusion of “it will all be ok, and think of climate change” rather too easily. Their environmental assessment has been “glib” to quote a high up conservation source.
Basically their environmental assessments have not been rigorous enough.
Have they fully explored every single other option to get their aggregate? Could there be an even closer source of aggregate to reduce CO2 even more and have less impact for wildlife? Have they properly surveyed as much of the dredging area as possible in the most detail? Have divers been down to look at what lives beneath the waves? Just how much life is there?
I don’t know, they don’t know. We need to know. We need more information. These questions are hard, very serious and very important.
I do not believe that any big business like Dover Harbour Board can just make assumptions about what is best for the environment without being scrutinized in every way possible. That would send a terrible message to the world of global corporate power that has scant regard for the planet it depends on. Especially when dealing with an area that is set to become a Marine Conservation Zone. They simply must ensure their environmental process is as detailed as it can possibly be.
Of course, eventually, if all the right people, with right knowledge say that the sands are the place do this dredge, then we should not let sentiment get in the way of the right outcome helping prevent the huge challenge of climate change. We need to learn to make practical decisions, as much as heart felt protest, in a world where human development is always going to cause conflict with natural environments.
Indeed the outcome may well be that the sands are dredged and the battle to "save them" may feel lost, but if proper diligent process can be truly enforced, the larger war to force all industry to take their responsibilities towards the environment seriously will be a step closer to being won. And that is a bigger battle by far.