Earlier this year the Environmental Audit Committee conducted an inquiry into Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and in particular Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). It has now published its report and recommendations.

The Marine and Coastal Access Act

2009 provided the framework for designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and requires that Marine  Conservation Zones (MCZs) (a type of MPA), to be designated in such a way as to form a network  that, with other UK MPAs, contributes to the conservation of the UK marine environment.

The report noted that only 27 MCZ have so far been designated falling well short of the 127 sites  recommended by the initial projects groups. This note considers the Committee’s findings and recommendations in more detail.

Introduction

Significant evidence suggests that global marine habitats and species are in serious need of  protection. In response, the Government outlined plans for a UK-wide network of MPAs, the first  phase of which will include 25% of English waters by 2016. MPAs aim to meet international  commitments1  and some will be designated under EU law2.

Marine Conservation Zones (“MCZs”) differ from other MPAs in that economic or social factors can be  material considerations3. The SNCB4 led the process of their selection with other bodies being  responsible for managing and regulating inshore5 and offshore6  areas. The first tranche of 27 were  designated in 2013 and the Government plans a further two tranches over the next two years  with  consultation on the first of these expected early 2015.

Summary of key complaints

Environmental Factors7

Marinet Marine Community Network argues that the Government has “cherry picked” from the 127  recommendations and the Marine Reserves Coalition argues that the plans fail for lack of  environmental ambition. The Wildlife and Countryside Link argue that there is no agreed benchmark  for degradation between witnesses and Defra and the Marine Biological Association argues for a more  active approach of recovering and restoration. Various witnesses including the Marine Biological  Association argue that there is a dearth of “reference areas” which prohibit any human activity  leading to a lack of useful benchmarking. However, the Countryside Alliance welcomed the decision  to leave reference areas to the second tranche. WWF and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation and  Marinelife are concerned about “mobile species” (e.g. seabirds, basking sharks and fish), which are not covered by MCZs and stress the importance  of inclusion in the second tranche.

Social or Economic Factors8

There were a range of commercial interests represented including the British Ports Association and  the Major Ports Group who are concerned about negative impacts on economic development and a  tendency to focus on locations with greater economic activity because they are inherently the best  surveyed. The Royal Yachting Association were reasonably comfortable whereas the British  Association for Shooting and Conservation had concerns. The Marinet Marine Community Network  proposed adoption of the “principle of co-location”, which can balance economic and environmental  concerns, for example potentially designating shipping lanes which would permit little alternative commercial use.

Communication9

There is a general belief that MCZs should be better communicated to the general public.

Robust Evidence vs Precautionary Principle10

Defra argue that there is uncertainty in available data and as such should not designate MCZs where  it is not appropriate. The National Oceanography Centre agreed that robust evidence is required  because of the threat of legal challenge leading to increased timescales. The Institute of  Fisheries Management argue that this issue significantly undermines the credibility of MCZs. The  North Sea Marine Cluster proposed a comprehensive phased seabed mapping exercise and the Institute  of Fisheries Management proposed further monitoring and interpretation of existing data.

Wildlife and Countryside Link et al pointed to the use of the best available data in conjunction  with the “precautionary principle”. In March 2010, the Government agreed to this however it has  since been departed from. There is strong opposition to this including the National Federation of  Fishermen’s Organisations, and as such the standard of data has been raised once again by the  Science and Technology Committee.

Overall there is consensus that progress of MCZs has been too slow11, which indicates a lack of  Government commitment and MCZs have been criticised from all sides. It is difficult to assess whether gaps are a result of standards or are simply to be expected12.

Managing MCZs13

Looking past the development of a constructive network of MPAs, the Marine Biological Association  argues that the Government has not set out a clear strategy for the management of the existing MCZs and the 

National Oceanography Centre suggest that without enforcement powers they are likely to be ineffective. The RSPB argues that  uncertainty is undermining confidence and overall the committee found disappointment from all  sides14. The management of MCZs needs to be underpinned with enforceable statutory regulation15 and  a clear lead agency is required16 with agreed resources17.

Recommendations

The report notes that the MCZ selection process has so far been widely criticised for lacking  environmental protection ambition through to the potential harm they could cause to business and  leisure activities. The Committee concludes that as this stage it is difficult to assess whether  the uncertainties are a feature of the programme or related to the evidence base.

The Committee recommends that the Government follow an environmental precautionary principle  approach to future designations, and based if need be on ‘best available’ data rather than the fuller ‘robust’ data.

It makes the following further recommendations. The Government should publish an engagement and communications plan18  and apply  lessons from the previous consultation process using the “precautionary principle”19. It should  immediately set out an overarching strategy for MCZ management20 which facilitates voluntary  arrangements21  and should include management plans for individual MCZs22. It should identify a  lead authority23  and provide a valid assessment of resources available24.

Next steps

The Government plans a further two tranches of designations over the next two years, with  consultation on the first of these expected early  2015. Key to the effectiveness of MCZs will be a  lead agency with responsibility for driving co-ordination of MPAs. While the Marine Management  Organisation (MMO) might be given this role the Committee notes that Government will need to  consider the organisations resources if it is to discharge the responsibility  effectively.