In West Dorset the recent announcement of a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) in Lyme Bay – one of 27 around the English coast – is warmly welcomed by Dave Sales. “It’s fantastic news for the small boats,” he tells me.

A veteran lobster fisherman, and chairman of the West Bay Fishermen’s Association, Dave points to the map on his kitchen table: “We’re fortunate here in that we’re ahead of the game. We had 60 square miles protected in 2008, then another 30 with the SAC [Special Area of Conservation]. Now the Stennis Ledges MCZ extends the protection right across to Portland.”

Lyme Bay has indeed fared better than most. When researchers, civil servants, fisheries representatives and NGOs gathered in London in December 2013, not many were as upbeat as Dave. Under the Marine Act of 2009, a coherent network of Marine Conservation Zones has been promised. But to date, of the 127 sites proposed by Britain’s Wildlife Trusts (during a long and often vexed consultation), only 27 have been designated. That might sound as if we are exactly 100 sites short, and that is just how many see it. More sites will be created in two further tranches, but, in the words of biologist Callum Roberts, “we are far from where we should be.”

Most puzzling of all is the drift toward protecting ‘features’ rather than whole sites. Earlier legislation required officials to state what features would be protected by any given designation. The term meant sometimes a geological feature or habitat, sometimes a particular organism, but that was clearly only part of what justified protecting the larger site.

‘Features’ have now been fastened upon by fishing-industry lobbyists as an escape clause, and particular features are now what the whole process starts with: these must be identified and their protection must be justified. Birds and cetaceans don’t count. Nor is the industrial fishing fleet required to justify the damage its methods do to marine habitats, whereas those seeking to protect these habitats must justify everything. It is not clear, even within the new MCZs, how much protection is being afforded to what does not qualify as a ‘feature’.

So, for example, the Stennis Ledges MCZ in Lyme Bay protects Chesil Beach and the Ledges themselves – or rather the native oysters and sea fans that are found on them. The exact status of the coarse and fine sands in between these features is uncertain, although they play host to large aggregations of spider crabs and cuttlefish every year. The scallop dredgers meanwhile argue that they should be readmitted to these sandy areas between the ‘features’.

This naturally gives rise to much confusion – and it was in fact intended to do just that. The legislation is there, but it is interpreted in such a way that it yields the absolute minimum in the way of real protection. Marine conservationists from Australia, New Zealand and the United States shake their heads in disbelief.

The list of sites to be considered for the second tranche will be announced in February 2014 and some see this in itself as a reason for optimism. But expanding the number of ‘MCZ’s only begs the question of how ‘protected’ any of them actually is. By all means eke out the ‘good news’, slice it up into as many ‘tranches’ as you like: MCZs are fully in line with the present government’s downgrading of conservation in its pursuit of ‘blue growth’ at sea. In practice this means maximising profit over all other considerations – and a peculiarly myopic version of profit at that. The same Marine Act called for the development of ‘marine plans’, the first of which, for the east coast, was published at the end of 2013. The Wildlife Trusts and others have expressed concern over the absence of any serious engagement with the devastating impacts of industrial fishing in the North Sea.

Perhaps the best answer to ‘features-led protection’ in the interests of ‘blue growth’ comes, again, from Lyme Bay. Following the closure of that initial 60 square miles five years ago, Emma Sheehan of the University of Plymouth carried out a video survey of the state of the sea bed and demonstrated that Ross corals are up by 385%, branching sponges by 414%, pink sea fans by 636% – all of which means extra nursery areas and structures for larval settlement. How about those for growth figures? Lobster fishermen, too, are noticing the increased numbers of young animals they are finding in their pots (and returning to the water). Exact figures on the catch per fishing effort are expected soon.

All this recovery can be measured and shown to people, the fishing industry included. And the figures above are actually for the pebbly sand between the reefs. In other words, when these areas are left alone for five years, what emerges at surprising speed is that reef-associated species will spread far beyond the places where they ‘ought to be’. What better illustration could there be of the folly of what the fishing industry refers to, with a snigger, as ‘evidence-based’ protection, meaning that we must only conserve what can be demonstrated to be already there?

Or what is left, rather. A visitor to the Isle of Man in 1836 wrote: “[The seaweed] may be seen waving to and fro at great depth, so extraordinary is the clearness of the water; a perfect submarine forest.” Was that how the Irish Sea looked to you last time you crossed from Holyhead? Callum Roberts reviewed the evidence for what its waters looked like when they were fished with hook and line and static nets, filtered by vast oyster-beds, when they were home to grey whales, angel sharks, halibut, turbot and even Lophelia coral.

The oyster-beds were dredged later in the 19th century by sailing boats and then steam-trawlers. Diesel-powered vessels came next, then monofilament nets and sonar. At every stage, technological advance allowed a brief leap in profit, at the expense of the small boats and the marine habitat. Reduced now to a ‘fishery of last resort’, the same prawn-trawling that has prevented the recovery of cod on the Grand Banks continues in the Irish Sea, alongside the dredging that is wrecking the integrity of the seabed.

Can we learn to limit the use of our technologies? Such degraded habitats, altered by eutrophication and the effects of climate change, are more vulnerable than ever to invasive species. The longer we wait for more ambitious protection, the worse it will get. Herman Melville calls the sea “an old, old sight, and yet somehow so young”, and I suppose we all know what he means. At this point it can only carry on renewing itself, and us, if we let it.

Horatio Morpurgo is a journalist and campaigner. He lives about a mile away from Lyme Bay and was involved in the successful local campaign to exclude the scallop dredgers from Lyme Bay and establish a Marine Protected Area. Horatio's book Drake's Graffiti (Erewhon, 2010) situates Marine Protected Areas in the longer story of the West Country's relationship with the sea. This article also draws on the Managing UK's Marine Natural Resources conference held at SOAS on 28 November 2013.