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Spain eliminates three marine bird sanctuaries to avoid diplomatic spats

The Straits of Gibraltar, Chafarina Islands and Banco de la Concepción are removed from the initial list of designated protected maritime zones

Spanish diplomacy has prevailed over environmental protection. On Tuesday, the Environment Ministry published its proposed list of the maritime areas that it wants the government to declare as national preserves.

However, in an effort to head off any diplomatic spats, ministry officials have eliminated three areas located in international waters, including two that are in an area of jurisdiction that is disputed with Gibraltar and Morocco.

Nevertheless, environmentalists are praising the government's move to declare 41 other areas as marine bird sanctuaries, saying that "it is a big step forward" in Spanish conservation efforts.

In total, the so-called Special Protection Zones for Birds total more than 50,000 square kilometers of areas along the coast of the Spanish peninsula and the Balearic and Canary Islands.

Strict controls will be enforced in each zone to keep oil tankers away and to ensure that birds that forage in these waters are not accidentally caught in fishermen's nets.

The Spanish Society of Ornithology (SEO-Birdlife), with financing from the European Union, helped ministry officials identify more than 37,000 kilometers of the most sensitive areas and, using GPS, spotted and listed more than 200 marine birds. Among the first tracts to appear in the SEO's proposed list were the Chafarina Islands, located some 2.5 miles off the coast of Morocco, where there are colonies of Cory's Shearwaters and Audouin's Gulls - both endangered species.

The SEO also included a part of the Straits of Gibraltar, which is located on the principle African-European migratory route, and the Banco de la Concepción, which lies just north of the Canaries.

José Jiménez, the director general of the Forestry Police, explained on Tuesday that the government decided to eliminate these areas from the initial protected-zone list because they are located in international waters. "Where there are disputes, we are going to sit down with the Foreign Ministry and study this issue more profoundly," he said.

Spain recently ignited a diplomatic rift when it declared the Bay of Algeciras a Site of Community Interest, which London immediately challenged before the European courts. The complaint was later thrown out by the justices.

Spain doesn't recognize any of Gibraltar's sovereignty claims to the waters surrounding the British overseas territory.

"Sites of Community Interest are designed to protect certain species and they must be justified," Jiménez said. The Forestry Police head also said he agreed with the Environment Ministry's decision not to designate the three areas in international waters Special Protection Zones for Birds because there "exist more than just scientific questions." The government doesn't want to create any unnecessary conflicts and has opted to study the matter before declaring the areas protected sites.

In 2006, the State Council prepared a report concerning the implications of designating protected zones in international waters. The report states that the Chafarina Islands were already declared a "national hunting refuge" in 1982, and recommended that if the government was going to extend the protected area, it should do so in conjunction with the Moroccan authorities.

SEO-Birdlife officials say they are disappointed by the Spanish government's decision to exclude the three areas from the list but reiterated that the ministry's designation of 41 other maritime areas "is a big step toward the conservation of our seas."

Pep Arcos, head of the SEO Marine Program, explained that even though an area is designated a special marine protection zone, "existing uses would remain" for the waters, such as fishing, but fishermen and others must avoid causing any injury to the birds. Arcos, however, admits that any approval of gas or oil exploration permits in these protected areas is more complicated.

The Environment Ministry has set a November 8 deadline for anyone who wants to file comments concerning the areas. Jiménez, for his part, hopes that the government will approve the designated areas before the current term expires.

Spain is far ahead of other European countries in this process of designation, Jiménez added. SEO-Birdlife acknowledged that it has been difficult to approve such protected zone designations in the past, but says this has been a commitment that has been driven by the past two Environment ministers.