Overwhelming response to marine protection consultation

In what has been called by Defra as an ‘exceptional consultation’, a summary of over 40,000 responses to the Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) consultation has been released. Sparking interest from marine scientists, fishing industries and the public alike, this consultation has so far been highly debated, with scientists writing a letter to the government and a petition with over 350,000 signatures being generated.  As yet however, it still remains unclear just how many of the original 127 proposed MCZs will be implemented in the UK’s seas.

The UK marine environment faces huge pressure from human activities and in order to help protect some of its unique habitats and species, the government has laid out plans to establish 127 MCZs. However, to the dismay of many, in December last year it was announced that only 31 would be implemented in 2013 – therefore many species, such as short snouted seahorses, could remain unprotected and vulnerable. This has left many to question the governments’ commitment to marine conservation and whether it is, in regards to these proposals, motivated more by socio-economic costs than environmental benefits.

A great variety of issues were raised by respondents in relation to the consultation, from the management approaches and conservation objectives of specific sites, to the use of evidence and whether MCZs will offer enough protection for highly mobile species such as sea birds. A major theme amongst respondents however was related to the small number of MCZs proposed to be implemented this year. Many campaigners, such as the RSPB and Marine Conservation Society felt that the full 127 MCZs should be established as soon as possible in order to achieve the desired ‘ecologically coherent network’ of MCZs. Additionally, many felt that high risk sites were being ignored and needed immediate attention and protection. Of particular notability, the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight ‘Save Our Seas’ campaign amounted to 63% of the campaign responses received, highlighting the impact that public engagement through the media can have in raising attention to environmental issues.

However, in response, the government stuck to its original reasoning for only so far selecting 31 sites, stating that it requires further, more robust evidence (scientific and otherwise) before more sites can be implemented. In addition, they also argued that without strong evidence, management and securement of agreements over fishing regulations with other member states beyond our 6 mile limit would be difficult to reach and enforce. In regards to the number of sites so far selected, they state MCZs are not the only protection that the UK marine environment has. There are over 300 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), 214 Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas and Marine Protected Areas protect 23% of England inshore waters.

The evidence standard also raised many issues with respondents.  A large proportion of consultees felt that the evidence standard required to support the implementation of sites had been set too high and had moved from the original government plans to use the ‘best evidence available’. Many felt that available evidence, such as from recent Defra-funded survey work, had not been used. Addressing this, Defra states that for successful implementation and management of MCZs, they require the strong evidence.  Whilst the level of evidence needed will vary throughout the process from identification of sites to designation and management, Defra argue that they have used the best evidence that has been available, and that where evidence gaps are missing survey work has been commissioned.

Another key theme highlighted by respondents was in regards to how MCZs would be managed. Whilst many welcomed the ‘bottom up’, stakeholder led approach, many respondents particularly from the commercial and recreational sectors raised concern over the lack of clarity regarding what management measures would be put in place after designation. Others mentioned that through implementing only a small number of sites, the government was missing the opportunity to carry out an ecosystem based approach and therefore better protect species and habitats. Defra responded by stating that such plans are currently being drawn up by the Marine Management Organisation and Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities. However, they argued that an ecosystem based approach would unbalance the present regional, stakeholder led approach to the designation of MCZs and could lead to shifts in what would be protected.

Given the huge number of responses and complex issues raised by this consultation, it is clear that there are many people who are interested and passionate about the UK marine environment. Whether the call for further evidence is a genuine need before all the MCZs can be established or just an excuse for the government to prolong implementation could be debated. However, the government is keen to establish the 31 sites in autumn of this year, and despite this falling short of the original number that was proposed, perhaps we should be happy that at least this is a step in the right direction.