Marine Conservation Zones

There are 27 Marine Conservation Zones around England. These are a kind of Marine Protected Area that are being set up nationally under the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009). At face value England already has quite a comprehensive collection of protected sites around its shores, so why do we need more and what implications do they have for sea users?

What is a Marine Protected Area?

A Marine Protected Area or MPA is an area of the sea and seabed where human activities are restricted to allow marine life to recover and thrive.  To be effective they need to be defined in law; and be properly enforced and managed to make sure that they are protected from activities that would damage them.

 Are they a bit like a Nature Reserve?

On land we have 15 National Parks which are protected because of their beautiful countryside, wildlife and cultural heritage. There are also many thousands of nature reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other designations which protect our forests, birds, mammals and other habitats and wildlife. In some cases, sites can be left completely wild and untouched and in other areas farming and recreation is allowed and encouraged.

It is also important to make sure that we provide adequate protection for our wildlife at sea through establishing sites where human activities are restricted and managed more closely. As on land, the level of protection would depend on the habitats and species – some are more sensitive to human activity than others.

 Why do we need protected areas?

MPAs are needed to provide a buffer against overfishing and development at sea. In recent decades, human activities have gradually intensified and caused widespread damage to our marine environment. The use of heavy mechanical fishing gear used to catch scallops and bottom-dwelling fish such as plaice churn up soft sediments; break up rocky reefs and destroy other creatures that live on the sea bed.  Other developments such as aggregate dredging, wind farms, pollution and climate change all combine to increase the pressure on marine life.

We need a marine environment that can continue to look after us and provide us with fish and shellfish into the future.   It is not just about protecting big species like whales and dolphins, or those that we like to eat like crab and cod; it is about making sure that the whole system is safe and secure.  Providing areas which are protected from the worst human impacts are an effective way of reducing this pressure and allowing marine life to recover.

 Don’t we already have Marine Protected Areas ?

Three Marine Nature Reserves (MNRs) were set up between 1985 and 1995 at Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, Skomer Island in Wales and Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. However, in reality there was very little active protection and human activities mostly continued unabated on these sites. Strangford Lough in particular suffered from continued damage to delicate horse mussel reefs.[i] In 2003 Lundy Island became the UK’s first ‘no take zone’.  It is only 3 Km in size, but with a permanent warden on the island, it has been effectively protected for nearly 10 years. Monitoring of lobsters inside the reserve showed that within four years, legal-sized lobsters were five times more abundant than in other fished areas.[ii] Further protected areas for our marine wildlife have been set up under European law over the last 20 years. Around the UK coasts and seas there are 108 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 108 Special Protection Areas (SPAs), although of the latter only three are completely marine. [iii]

 Are MPAs only found in England?

No, MPAs can be found all over the world. One of the most famous examples is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The Great Barrier Reef has a system of zoning which defines what human activities can take place in each part of the reef. Some areas allow fishing with pots and lines and others are closed to all human activities that involve taking anything or damaging it in any way.

In recent years there have been efforts to create large areas that have significantly increased the proportion of sea under protection, such as the North Western Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific and the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. However, recent studies report that only 2.85 million km2 or 2.8% of the global ocean area is protected within an MPA[iv]. Countries such as the Philippines, South Africa, USA and New Zealand have had MPAs for over 20 years and many other coastal nations have been following suit. However, many sites around the world are not well managed or enforced and have been dubbed ‘paper parks’ since they only exist as lines on maps, and do little to protect the marine wildlife.

MPAs can be found in the seas of all maritime European states, although some are more developed than others, and few are managed effectively. There are only 18 MPAs in Northern Europe that are completely closed to all damaging human activities, (known as marine reserves) and many of these are very small in size.  [v]

What are the UK’s obligations?

The UK has signed up to a number of International Conventions to meet a target of 10% MPAs by 2020 under the Convention on Biological Biodiversity. As a contracting party to the OSPAR Convention, the UK also agreed to establish an ‘ecologically coherent’ network of ‘well-managed’ MPAs by 2016.

Over the last 10 years, the primary focus for the UK (and all coastal countries in the EU) has been on identifying MPAs that meet the European Habitats and Birds Directives. These identify 29 bird seabird species that need protection within Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and 27 marine species and habitats that need protection as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

The UK also has obligations under the European Union Marine Strategy Framework Directive to ensure that their sea is in Good Environmental Status by 2020; and MPAs are seen as a vital component of meeting this target.

It is the Marine Act (2009) that sets out the mechanism for a network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) that are protecting the full range of marine life found in the UK. The responsibility to identify potential sites was handed over to Government’s conservation advisors Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) who set up four independent, regional projects that worked with stakeholders to identify potential sites.

How were these new MCZs chosen?

Very carefully. In 2010, JNCC and Natural England drew up a set of targets through which the network of sites would become ‘ecologically coherent’ (see below). These benchmarks were designed to ensure that the network of MPAs protected all kinds of habitats, with sensible distances between them and with contingencies built in.[vi] It was then up to stakeholders in four regional projects around England to define how they met these targets. Over an 18 month period, stakeholders worked together in numerous meetings to agree on where MCZs could be sited.  They looked at hundreds of different options, received local input and advice and had access to all kinds of different maps and information. Three developing works-in-progress were assessed by an independent scientific panel before a final version was submitted in September 2011.

Through this process stakeholders were able to ensure that they met the targets, but also look at how to minimise the impact on existing commercial activities.  It doesn’t mean that stakeholders all welcomed the recommendations, but this delicate balance very broadly represents the point at which the conservation sectors could seek no more and the commercial sectors could accept no less.

What does ecologically coherent mean?

Ecological coherence is the aspiration of global and national MPA networks, but it is a term that is poorly defined and difficult to measure.  The term means that MPAs should not be designed in isolation, but should ensure that they operate as a network that is protecting different habitats and consideration is also given to how they are linked together and have some redundancy built in.

It is a bit like a balanced diet in that it needs to consist of different components, in adequate amounts and at sensible intervals. Like a balanced diet, it is impossible to say exactly what it should be, but you would normally recognise it when you see it.

Achieving ecological coherence is rarely something that is achieved in one go, but a cyclical process of designation and evaluation through which you gradually work towards a point at which you are likely to be ecologically coherent.

How will these sites be protected?

Like other European marine sites (SACs and SPAs) it is the features within an MCZ (ranging from individual species or entire habitats) that are protected rather than the whole area. The health of each feature and the potential impact of human activities on each of these features needs to be individually assessed. It is only if a human activity is harming a particular feature within an MCZ that it can be restricted.

This approach was established in the early 1980s within the European conservation designations. It is somewhat cumbersome to apply in the marine environment since our ability to closely monitor the health and extent of marine species and habitats is so much more limited. It is time consuming and expensive to monitor so many different features, and often we don’t realistically have the scientific certainty to have confidence in our conclusions. A more effective approach would be to define protection based on larger scale habitats which would automatically encompass the broad range of other species within them.

Outside of Europe, MPAs are defined with clearer distinctions of what human activities can take place within different sites and zones based on predetermined criteria.

How much should we know about a site before it can be designated as an MCZ?

Science has been become politicised by those seeking to influence decisions over MCZs.  Those seeking to prevent them have called for greater rigour in the scientific evidence base. On the other hand conservation organisations advocate the use of a precautionary approach that ensures a lack of evidence is not a barrier to a site being designated. A Government Minister recently suggested that at the very minimum we should have a reasonable assurance that what we think we are protecting is actually there.

It is important to remember that our scientific knowledge of the sea is not uniform. Factors such as depth and distance from shore all influence how much we know. We are likely to know much more about a shallow area of seagrass than an area of mud that is far offshore. In the former there is a high level of evidence, and in the latter uncertainty – does that mean that one habitat should be protected and not the other?

Since the network needs to be representative of all marine life, it is inevitable that the level of scientific certainty will vary across sites. The evidence threshold therefore should be proportionate to what can be reasonably collected within the budget and time available.  The principle of ‘best available evidence’ is therefore a vital component in the design of a representative network; otherwise the selection of sites would be dictated by a very narrow range of options. This principle was enshrined at the beginning of the MCZ process, but concerns over legal challenge have led to a more stringent requirement of ‘evidence based’ decisions.

We are used to dealing with uncertainty in many other parts of our lives, and we are naturally inclined to respond in a cautious manner. For example, we know that the chances of fire burning down our house are very small, but we still buy insurance because the potential impact is so disastrous.

At the moment we are stuck in an impasse in which the benchmark for scientific data has been set very high, but there are no resources to carry out surveys.

 Who will manage and enforce them?

At a local level, enforcement of MCZs is the responsibility of the newly created Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agencies (IFCAs) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).  The IFCAs have a responsibility for commercial and recreational fishing out to 6 nautical miles and have the powers to introduce new byelaws and prosecute offenders. The MMO has responsibility for all other licensed activities (such as dredging, wind farms etc) in the whole sea area and for the surveillance and enforcement of fisheries outside of 6 nautical miles.

Only 23% of the 265 features within these new MCZs have a ‘recover’ conservation objective, which would generally indicate that existing human activities would need to be managed in some form.  For many sites, the situation would seem to be business as usual with the status quo being maintained, rather than improved.

What about threats to local economies?

Great care was taken in the planning of MCZs to ensure that they could minimise conflict with important fishing areas and other commercial developments such as windfarms. However, it should not be forgotten that the purpose of an MPA is to restrict and reduce the most damaging kinds of human activity to allow marine life a chance to be restored.  There are many examples of thriving fishing communities working alongside well established MPAs such as Sesimbra in Portugal and Lira in northern Spain. Properly managed MCZs have the potential to bring more stability and security for small scale fishermen in the UK.

The decision to restrict human activities to protect marine wildlife can be presented in the short term as a decision which is a cost to business or having a negative impact on economic activity. However, healthy marine ecosystems are an important part of a robust local maritime economy.

In designating an MCZ there are obviously going to be some people who gain and others who lose. Making a decision about where an MCZ should be located is challenging, but what was unusual about the MCZ process was that it allowed stakeholders to collectively agree where sites should be located based on concepts of rights and principles, local context and other issues which a straightforward cost benefit analysis could not have achieved.