Are we pleased or disappointed with our 23 new MCZs?

Working in conservation can sometimes feel like you are constantly at the losing end of a tug-of-war; so the news that we gained 23 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) has to be celebrated. That is 23 more than we had before; which we can add to the 27 existing MCZs, and 33 Special Areas of Conservation in England. The total proportion of sea now encircled in a protective box now sits at around 17%. That’s great news and a real testament to the work of those in Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Defra who have seen them safely through.

It can’t be easy being in these organisations – expected to do more and more; hardest hit by Government cuts and unvalued by mainstream political ideology that is looking to squeeze revenue out of the environment, rather than cherish its value. It is difficult to detect any real enthusiasm for conservation, or any sort of real drive to properly protect marine life for the future. This isn’t unusual, few Governments do.

There’s a great deal of joy and optimism in what people are sharing and saying. There’s quite a few clouds in the silver lining though – a few ‘buts’ and caveats about what our network of MPAs is or isn’t doing.

In the rest of the world, Marine Protected Areas are managed proactively – ie they say what you can and can’t do clearly and up front. The Great Barrier Reef has zones that graduate from areas where you can do just about anything, to sites which are completely off limits to everyone.  Europe adopted a rather more unwieldy approach from land conservation which sets management in a more reactive approach. A crucial component enshrined in law is that if you are not sure that something is being damaged, then you better put management in place – this is called being ‘precautionary’. Spurred on by the threat of legal challenge by the Marine Conservation Society and Client Earth, England is taking a more robust and precautionary approach to ensuring that damaging fishing is excluded from protected areas. It is true that many of our MPAs aren’t yet protected in any meaningful way, but there has been more progress in the last three years than there has for the last 20.

It’s taking a long time because the bar is set very high. If you are going to be changing how the sea is used and managed, you need to be careful; but at the same time you need to be realistic and proportionate to the resources you have available. Those at the front line of managing our marine environment simply don’t have enough human or technical resources to do what is asked of them. They are being asked to build a battleship with meccano. Either the process needs to be simplified or they need to be given more money, or robust protection for our marine life is a distant hope.

Apart from the Azores, England has the most comprehensive and well-designed network of Marine Protected Areas in Europe and there is more comprehensive management within them too. That’s a fact, but not cause for celebration. It’s not as though Europe are world leaders in marine protection – most big MPAs in Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Holland or the Atlantic coast of France have very little meaningful protection either. I would hate this to be a race to the bottom, rather I hope that countries will want to become bolder as they see benefits begin to accrue.

The fishing industry too are saying that the continued uncertainty is hurting them – if you don’t know what is happening how can you plan your future, your mortgage, your earnings. The quote from the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation also quite rightly reminded us that fishermen absolutely rely on the health of the environment for their livelihoods. These are both strong reasons to ensure that ocean protection for England gets the resources it needs to finish the job properly and quickly.

So you see, it’s not as simple as saying the job is done, nor is it all hopeless either. Most people want to see our seas protected, but we know it’s not in the top 20 of things that the electorate really care about, and there’s the root cause. The question to ask is whether these measures are enough to protect and restore our marine environment. They aren’t; so we need to keep improving protection until we see things get much better, and the way to do that is keep reminding politicians that this is as important as education, healthcare and nuclear deterrents. After all, if we don’t have a healthy, functioning environment around us then we have no biological basis for our own survival either.

I hope that in 20 years we will look back and wonder how we managed to let our seas be so denuded and degraded for so long; how we let short term industry returns hold sway over the need for future protection. 23 MCZs is a step in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go and weightier problems in store.