UK Marine Conservation Zones

QUESTION: Why is the Government moving so slowly setting up marine conservation zones? – Pamela, Coventry, UK

ANSWER:  Several news items of late have focused on the Government’s current consultation on only 31 of the 127 marine conservation zones originally nominated for protection under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (England and Wales). Environment Minister Richard Benyon (Conservative) blames the on-going financial squeeze for the seemingly snail-paced implementation, saying that as a result of the lingering malaise he cannot designate as many areas for protection as he would like, but that more are set to ‘come on line’ over the next few years. 

Some disagree with this hesitant approach. Hinting that fears of complex judicial review may also be slowing the process (and getting in a political pot shot), the Chair of Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee Andrew Miller MP (Labour) said recently:

The Government is currently letting the project flounder while sensitive environments are further degraded and the industry is subjected to further uncertainty.” 

The Minister should not let his priorities be dictated by fear of judicial review, he must end the uncertainty and set out a clear timetable to designate the zones with a firm commitment to an end date by which the protected areas will be established.”

So just what is going on, and how did this situation develop (or is there even a ‘situation’)?

As with a lot of these sorts of schemes things can get confusing rather quickly. The nomenclature of the different flavours of areas – MPAs, MPZs, NTZs, etc., etc. – go on and on; each meaning roughly the same thing, a geographically defined protected area, but with varying levels/types of restricted activity. Some forbid types of commercial fishing (think of nets being dragged over reefs) and some are virtually “no go zones”, where even anchoring a small boat or wading about picking up shells may be designated off-limits. 

Too, they are administered at many different levels. In addition to those enacted at national level there are International Zones and European Zones, and within the UK, administration is handled in Scotland and Northern Ireland by the devolved Governments. In England and Wales, with the passage of the Marine Act (which created the 127 zones mentioned above) four regional groups were formed to provide technical expertise in developing the MCZs: Finding Sanctuary (south west), Balanced Seas (south east), Irish Sea Conservation Zones (Irish Sea) and Net Gain (North Sea). Just knowing who is doing what is challenging.

But what are marine conservation zones? Or Marine protected Areas? Put simply they are designated geographical where nature can flourish protected from at least some level of human activity. We at Deep Blue like the concept of marine protection zones even though we are more involved with supply/demand issues (the fish retailers choose to stock and people choose to buy – think Friend of the Sea eco-certification) and hands-on governmental/scientific management. 

The big challenges – perhaps deal breakers – are in choosing the appropriate sites to designate and in setting the level and kinds of activities to restrict. And of course we must remember that Mother Nature doesn’t recognise lines on maps. Ocean acidification, sea warming and shifts in currents can also affect these areas, as well as human activities perhaps not included in the management scheme – think of storm water run off from on-shore development.

They are a piece of the puzzle – and needed – and if set up correctly should be put in place without undue delay.

Reed McFarland
European Coordinator
Deep Blue Public Relations



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