Marine Conservation Zones in the UK: Response to the Environmental Audit Committee report


By Sue Wells

The MCZ process has been criticised from many angles and the often negative press has resulted in an international perception that it has not been successful so far.  Although not perfect, some of us consider that it has been no worse than the efforts of other countries, and certainly far more deserving of support.  Nick Wehner recently highlighted the report of the British Government’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) on the MPA list but based his comments on a briefing produced by a law firm (Bond Dickinson). 

The EAC, however, is a cross-party group of MPs (Members of Parliament) and their role is “to consider the extent to which the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and to audit their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets.”  Their report, published in June 2014 and resulting from interviews with and written witness statements from stakeholders and other interested parties, provides more detail and the necessary context to understand the recommendations.

First, the EAC stresses the need for better communications.  Many will agree with this conclusion. MCZs are complex MPAs.  They are multiple use, and each one has different designated features (species and habitats), with different future management that depends on these features. The process used to recommend and designate sites is also complex.  This is not surprising given the legal requirement to take socio-economic issues into account (meaning extensive stakeholder involvement in the recommendation phase), the difficulties involved in obtaining adequate data (as is the case in all countries trying to set up MPAs), and the designation process which, as for any protected area, needs careful consideration of boundaries. 

The four regional projects that produced the recommendations were reasonably well resourced for communications but this was much more limited during the public consultation and designation phases.  The NGOs and media put out a variety of information and campaigning material but this was not always accurate, and contributed to the sometimes confusing messages received by the general public.  Extensive information is available on line (including the majority of materials from the regional projects, the statutory advice from JNCC and Natural England, the public consultation documents) but is not particularly easy to find, and the detailed reports and tables are not necessarily quick reading; there has been little analysis or summarizing of detail.

Second, the EAC report, slightly confusingly, recommended that the Government should both extend the evidence gathering work for the next tranches, and also follow the precautionary principle and increase the number of MCZs to be designated in the second tranche. Without extensive new resources being made available, it is hard to see how both these suggestions could be implemented and the current time table maintained (the second tranche of 37 proposed sites is to go to public consultation in less than a year). As the EAC report states, environmental stakeholders consider that the current process lacks ambition and is too slow, whereas business and recreational stakeholders fear that their activities will be harmed. The conflict between those who want a network established quickly, and those with concerns about potential damage from MCZs to their interests and who thus want a high level of evidence before designation, has been a fundamental issue throughout the process, but is not limited to the UK or to MPA designations.  It is a basic conundrum of conservation: how do you create all the protected areas that are needed in a timely fashion, whilst respecting the rights and needs of users of the areas affected?  The 37 sites being considered in the second tranche is probably as good a compromise as any, and it seems that the EAC may not have fully understood this basic contradiction.

A further important EAC recommendation is that management of MCZs should be made clear.  The UK approach to management of protected areas – i.e. no enforceable statutory regulation – has been a stumbling block throughout the process.  The uncertainty about how an MCZ site is to be managed creates enormous concern among stakeholders and makes their buy-in almost impossible. Normal practice in the UK is for the statutory nature conservation bodies (Natural England and JNCC) to provide detailed “conservation advice” (which includes advice on the pressures, and where possible, activities, which are likely to have a significant effect on the designated features) to the regulators.  The regulators then consider, with stakeholders as appropriate, what management actions are needed to achieve the conservation objectives of a site, including whether specific management measures are required under legislation.  There is now recognition that this approach, taking place after designation, is not ideal for stakeholders, and efforts are underway to develop an understanding of potential management measures needed in MCZs more quickly.  However, given the current statutory process, it is hard to see how there could be any immediate change to the process; it will be interesting to see the governments’ response to the EAC report on this.

Other recommendations of the report include the need to use voluntary agreements as part of MCZ management (this has been the governments intention all along but there are concerns from some stakeholders that these will lead to ineffective management), a proposal that a single body should be given the lead role for strategy and co-ordination of MCZs (there are a number of regulatory bodies involved in MPA management, as is the case in many countries), and the suggestion that  full management plans for the designated 27 MCZs should be published by November 2014  and draft management plans should be available for the public consultation for each of the next tranche of MCZs.

No country has designated 100-plus MPAs at a single stroke – the resources required to do this would be immense. The current phased approach is probably the most pragmatic approach to completing the UK network, given that the recommendation process resulted in so many individual sites.  There is no doubt that the UK started to think seriously about its MPA network very late in the day, given the international and national concern and debate about the health of the oceans.  But that is the past.  The priority now is for those involved in the process to be given the support and encouragement they need.  The data gathering and processing, mapping, and consultation involved is substantial, and it would be good to see the NGOs and scientific community take a more collaborative and helpful stance.


An interesting perspective, Sue, but a few specific points. "The UK approach to management of protected areas – i.e. no enforceable statutory regulation". Terrestrial protected area (SSSIs, NNRs, SACs and SPAs) are all managed under legal frameworks that were strengthened in 2000 and these protected areas include legally binding regulations, so the basis of your statement is not clear. Similarly, marine SACs/SPAs under the Habitats/Birds Directives are subject to legally binding regulations, so MCZs are actually one of the only protected areas in the UK that it is expected will be managed largely under voluntary arrangements, even though previous cases and experience with voluntary marine nature reserves indicates this is unlikely to be effective. "There is no doubt that the UK started to think seriously about its MPA network very late in the day" - the UK government has been developing its network of marine SACs under the Habitats Directive since 1992 and whilst this may not fully comply with recognised MPA network design criteria, it does represent thinking and slow progress towards an MPA network. It is also worth noting that the government has now disowned the Ecological Network Guidance on which the MCZ design process was based, reverting to less exacting and prescriptive OSPAR criteria. With regards to evidence, the issue that you neglect is that the when the 127 MCZ recommendations were made in 2013, the process switched from 'best available evidence approach', with due recognition of the need to proceed in the face of uncertainty in keeping with the precautionary approach, to an evidence-based approach, with no recognition of the precautionary approach. This was at the same time as the process which was launched by DEFRA and their conservation agency as a bottom-up stakeholder driven process reverted to top-down process driven mainly by challenges from the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO), hence the frustration of so many other stakeholder groups. The way that the process is devolving into designations based on individual features (rather than whole site integrity, calling into question whether MCZs will actually be MPAs), for which an evidence base is required of their exact distribution (even if relatively mobile), their condition and their vulnerability to certain activities, this then only justifying a purely voluntary approach to management of activities which it can be proved are having significant effects, is arguably illogical, insufficient and certainly not in keeping with recognised good practice for MPAs. We have attempted to summarise the details of the MCZ process in our work - see , , and . I think attention should also be drawn to recent significant progress with European Marine Sites (SACs and SPAs), noting that this has only been achieved due to legal obligations to and pressures from the European Commission. The big problem with MCZs is that they are not subject to binding specific obligations to the European Commission, therefore they are reliant on political will at a domestic level. In my view this is why the MCZ process is descending into debacle, as this political will is lacking, hence the increasing focus on improving the effectiveness of the European Marine Sites which cover 13% of England's seas, though only a staggering 3% of their features are estimated to be in favourable condition, these therefore being the main focus for improving marine conservation prospects. This may not seem like a helpful stance, but I would argue that it is a realistic one.

I would like to add my name to the comments made by Dr Peter Jones and Professor Callum Roberts regarding the loss of the precautionary principle and the disconnect between aims and delivery. It is surely time for all those who are dissatisfied with NGO inaction and Government intransigence to rally behind a mission statement that should be led by academia. This is the call being promoted by Marinet and I would welcome anyone who wants a mission beyond the apathy that currently existsxs

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