Light-bulb sea squirt beneath a rock on the lower shore UK. The Marine Conservation Society says the government’s plans for protected ocean areas are too limited. Photograph: Alamy
The government has been accused of a "lack of ambition" to preserve the seas, ahead of an expected announcement on Thursday about plans for a series of protected marine areas.
A total of 127 potential marine conservation zones have been selected in a multimillion-pound programme involving wildlife groups, local coastal communities and marine industry representatives.
The areas would be protected from damaging activities such as fishingalong the seabed or dredging, with restrictions varying from zone to zone, as part of moves to create a coherent network of protected areas throughout England's seas.
But the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has raised concerns that the government will only designate 31 of the sites as protected by the end of next year, despite many more being severely threatened.
The charity said the government's advisers backed 127 marine conservation zones to create a coherent network of sites to protect the sea's habitats and wildlife and had said 59 sites were highly threatened and should be designated immediately.
The MCS wants the government to designate the 59 high-risk sites now, and all 127 by the end of 2014.
If ministers designate just 31 sites by the end of next year, they will have delayed the opportunity to create areas which will allow marine wildlife to thrive, the conservation group said.
Jean-Luc Solandt, senior biodiversity policy officer at MCS said: "Designating just 31 sites in 2013 shows a complete lack of ambition and no duty of care to the 59 sites that are at severe risk of damage, let alone the 127 sites that the government was advised would create a network of marine conservation sites.
"We cannot delay protection.
"We wouldn't stand by and let wildflower meadows and ancient forests be dug up and cleared, and yet heavy fishing gear is dragged across all kinds of habitats, destroying large swaths of the seabed with very little control."
The government is expected to unveil its plans, which will be put out for public consultation, for marine conservation zones on Thursday.