27 conservation sites announced for UK marine environment

After what has been a long and much debated process, Defra have finally announced the establishment of 27 Marine Conservation Zones  (MCZs)in English waters. Although somewhat short of the original 127 initially proposed, this network will provide protection to marine life and habitats throughout the English coastline.

Designation of MCZs in the UK marine environment has been much contested since the original announcements were made back in 2011. The process has seen much media attention, most notably through Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s FishFight campaign, whilst marine and fisheries scientists wrote letters to MPs to champion the need for a full network to be implemented and the public also got involved through petitions and protests. The consultation itself received an overwhelming response with over 30,000 responses being submitted from conservation charities, scientists and fishing industries alike. Despite this drive for a full implementation of 127 MCZs to establish the desired ‘coherent ecological network’, only 27 have been designated, which is even less than the previous 31 which were announced in December of last year.

The full list of areas now given protection can be seen on Natural England’s factsheets webpage, and include areas such as Lundy Island, Chesil Beach and Loo Bay. These 27 sites will protect a range of habitats including chalk reefs, sub-tidal coarse sediments and shingled spits, and species such as the short snouted seahorse, lagoon shrimps and snails and puffins. In addition to these factsheets , Natural England have this week released a document which outlines their advice which they submitted to Defra relating about how to choose sites for protection.

Whilst it is welcomed that Defra have made steps to better protect the marine environment, there can be little dispute that their original promises of a fully integrated network of 127 MCZs has not been met, for now at least. In reaction to these announcements, scientists and conservation organisations have already given their views, and broadly speaking whilst most welcome the newly protected sites, they argue that this must mark just the beginning of marine protection in the UK and that more must be established in order to achieve an ‘ecologically coherent network’.

However, the newly appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Marine Environment, George Eustice, defended the limited designations given so far saying ‘These Marine Conservation Zones will safeguard a wide range of precious sea life from seahorses to oyster beds and our ambitions do not end there. This is just the beginning, we plan two further phases over the next three years and work to identify these will begin shortly.’ He also argued that MCZs are ‘only one piece of the jigsaw’ and exist alongside other protection measures such as the 500 Marine Protected Areas. As such, two more phases of MCZ designations are expected in the next three years, with the next consultation taking place in early 2015.

Given the Nature Check report released earlier this week that assessed the government’s work to meeting its environmental commitments, it is vital than in order to keep public, scientific and environmental organisations trust the promises George Eustice has made about future marine protection are followed up. Whilst 27 sites does indeed ensure that some parts of the UK marine environment are better protected, in order for the best possible protection, implementing the full network is extremely important for the future of UK marine life.