Up to 200 boats carrying hundreds of passengers can descend on the islands – six miles north-east of Jersey – on busy days in the summer, which environmentalists say is having a detrimental impact on native birds and seal colonies.
And calls are even being made to ban travel to the Ramsar site, which falls inside Jersey’s National Park, altogether between April and August – the most popular tourist period – as this is a key breeding and nurturing period for the common tern.
Naturalist Mike Stentiford, one of the founders of the park, described current protections for the reef as ‘toothless’ and called on politicians, tour operators and fellow environmentalists to ‘grab the nettle’ and act to protect the area’s wildlife.
In a response to a written question tabled by Deputy Kirsten Morel, Environment Minister John Young said a series of issues had been highlighted, together with potential solutions.
He said: ‘There are several potential ways of addressing the reported overcrowding at the Ecréhous, which ranges from simple awareness initiatives to financially and resource-heavy management measures involving wardens, dedicated patrols, permits.’
This year a major initiative to track the number of people visiting the Ecréhous and their impact on wildlife is being planned.
Richard Stevens, owner of Jersey Seafaris, which has been taking people to the reef for eight years, said he would support the introduction of permits. ‘The main thing we want to protect is the Ecréhous as a special place. We will support anything that helps keep it that way.
‘Having rangers is one suggestion but I think this would be quite hard to do. Permits for operators is another thing and that is something I would support.
‘What I would say is that we are seeing more seals, more dolphins and more terns in the last two years than we ever have.’
Mário Setubal, of Island RIB Voyages, defended tour operators and said a ‘poor understanding’ of what they did had led them to be targeted.
‘We do the upmost to minimise the number of people visiting the reef and respect the wildlife in their natural habitat. We are all accredited, respecting the wildlife in their natural habitat and protecting the Ecréhous and its natural beauty is paramount.
‘We work closely with the RAMSAR management authority and the hut owners’ association for both the Ecréhous and the Minquiers, and we all have managed to achieve a balanced approach.
‘We, as commercial operators, provide a way for people that would otherwise never get a chance to explore the offshore reefs, respect the wildlife and residents alike and experience the beauty that Jersey has to offer, in a safe and controlled manner.’
But environmentalist Nicolas Jouault, former chairman of the marine biology section of the Société Jersiaise, says he has seen serious impacts on wildlife caused by people visiting the reef. He said he had evidence of tern nests being ‘trampled on’ and added that visitors getting too close to seal colonies or other wildlife was causing them ‘great stress’.
Asked if reef wardens were a necessary measure, Mr Jouault said: ‘I do think it needs to go that far. Fisheries go out there occasionally but if people see them they’ll behave.’
He added that there were ‘some good tour operators and some bad’ and that the behaviour of some visitors – who he said might go to the toilet in more secluded areas – was putting wildlife under stress and therefore making them more vulnerable to predators.
‘Action should have been taken a long time ago. I fear there is not a lot we can do now – it’s out of hand. The tour operators are well established and the wildlife is their business. It’s difficult to act now.’
Gareth Jeffreys, acting chairman of Jersey’s Ramsar Management Group, said work on public information courses, signage and a Channel Island-wide Marine Code of Conduct was being worked on. He added that scientific monitoring and ‘official zoning of conservation and recreational areas’ was also being planned.
Mr Jeffreys, current chairman of the marine biology section of the Société Jersiaise, said they had raised concerns with government about the delay in implementing the Island’s new Wildlife Law. A consultation was launched in October 2018.
The Ecréhous fall under the administration of St Martin. The largest isle is Maître Ile – which is 300m long and 150m wide – and only two others remain above sea level at high tide: Marmoutier and Blanche Ile. There are no permanent residents but several fishing huts, some used as holiday residences, as well as a Customs post.
Alphonse Le Gastelois spent 15 years living alone on the remote reef after his name was mysteriously leaked as the chief suspect in the Beast of Jersey attacks in the early 1960s. He died in 2012 aged 97.
Mr Stentiford said Jersey has to be ‘courageous’ to protect the reef. He said: ‘If I had a magic wand I would stop anybody going there between April and August. It’s the height of the summer months, which is unfortunate, and it opens a can of worms, to be honest, because people have property out there. People won’t like me for saying it, but we need action. It’s a difficult thing to be solved but we have to be brave, bold and courageous. It’s either part of the National Park, a Ramsar site and it’s protected for the wildlife, or it’s not, and we abandon that and give up. It’s two choices and there is no way I think we should throw in the towel.’