THE Helford Estuary has been announced as one of 12 new Marine Conservation Zones today.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has created the new MCZs, which cover from the Dart Estuary to the Isles of Scilly, giving protections that will safeguard 6,521sqkm, an area almost twice the size of Cornwall.

Among the species and habitats that will benefit from the protections are fan mussels, tentacled lagoon-worms and the deep sea bed.

The new designations are part of the greatest expansion yet to UK’s Blue Belt, with a total of 41 new MCZs introduced today to protect habitats and species in British seas.

It follows an extensive consultation which saw overwhelming support for the proposals with over 48,000 responses received from the public.

In addition to designating all 41 of the proposed sites, protections will be expanded at 12 existing sites.

Mr Gove said: “The south west’s waters contain riches to rival the tropics – with the seas home to a vast array of animal and plant species.

“That’s why in this Year of Green Action we are increasing protection for these habitats, helping ensure they are safeguarded for generations to come.”

The 12 sites designated in the south west are:

• Helford Estuary

• Cape Bank

• South of Isles of Scilly

• Camel Estuary

• South West Approaches to Bristol Channel

• Erme Estuary

• South West Deeps (East)

• Devon Avon Estuary

• Dart Estuary

• Otter Estuary

• Axe Estuary

• East of Start Point

Each designation is based on scientific evidence provided by marine experts from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), as well as socio-economic information provided by stakeholders and Defra economists.

Regulators, such as the Marine Management Organisation and local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCA), will be responsible for ensuring the MCZs are managed to protect their species and habitats.

Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, said: “These new protections are based on advice from our world-leading marine scientists and we believe will go a long way toward safeguarding over a million hectares of England’s ocean and coastal environment, and the many species which rely upon it.

“Today really does mark a major step forward for the conservation of our precious marine environment, but there is still much to be done, including putting in place more of the good practices that we know are needed to secure the long-term health of our seas and their wildlife”.

Management plans will now be put in place to protect the designated features. This could help reduce or even stop activities that are causing damage.

The new sites contribute to the UK’s 220, 000 square km ‘Blue Belt’ of marine protection, with MCZs just one type of the many Marine Protected Areas in place to conserve rare, threatened and nationally important habitats and species for future generations.

Harry Barton, chief executive of Devon Wildlife Trust, said: “This is a tremendous moment for our internationally-famous coast and surrounding seas. Here in the south west we have some of the most beautiful and charismatic marine life anywhere in Europe, including stunning reefs, kelp beds and sea grasses, as well as the many fish, whales, dolphins and sea birds that live alongside them.

“Until now far too much of has been unprotected. Here is our chance to change all of that and start to put our seas into recovery. The challenge now is to manage these sites properly, stop damaging activities like scallop dredging and monitor their condition so that we can be sure to leave future generations with something at least as good as we have today.”

The announcement builds on the UK’s global leadership in protecting the marine environment – with the government calling for 30 per cent of the world’s ocean to be protected by 2030 and the creation of the co-chaired Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance.

The government said it would publish an international ocean strategy this year, setting out further action to conserve and sustainably use the ocean.