Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are the most important tool that we have to ensure that marine wildlife is protected from human activities. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of progress around the UK in planning and designating new MPAs. In England we now have 39 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 50 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) covering approximately 16% of English waters. New byelaws have been enacted by Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agencies and the Marine Management Organisation to restrict human activities that are damaging to the protected features.

A brief guide to MPA management in England

European environmental law requires Member State Governments to set up protected areas to ensure the protection of biodiversity both on land and in the sea. These sites are called Special Areas of Conservation or SACs. Government conservation bodies such as Natural England carry out surveys, and in consultation with stakeholders determine where these habitats and species are and identify appropriate boundaries.

SACs are not designated to protect areas, but to protect specific features (such as seagrass bed or pink sea fans) present in those areas. Designation orders for each site name the features which are formally protected and formulate conservation objectives which state whether they need to be ‘restored’ or ‘maintained’ to ‘favourable conservation’ status.

Once site has been designated, the law requires that the designated features within a site are able to reach favourable conservation status. In order to do this, human activities that are, or are likely to have an impact on them need to be managed in some way. The management of sites places specific obligations on different agencies to ensure that appropriate and proportionate measures are put in place. The process has been set out within the Directives and established within National Regulations.

Government has two statutory conservation advisors: Natural England (NE) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). In the marine environment it is Natural England that provides conservation advice for sites that are within territorial waters (up to 12 nautical miles) and the JNCC who provide advice for offshore sites outside of territorial waters.

The conservation advice is prepared to help Relevant Authorities understand the ecological requirements of the site and a clear indication of which human operations might cause these species and habitats to be disturbed. In the marine environment, a Relevant Authority are bodies such as Ports, Local Authorities, Water companies or the Environment Agency who have local powers or functions that could have a bearing on how the marine environment is protected.

The process through which the need for management is assessed is known as an ‘Appropriate Assessment’. This would normally be carried out by a consultant on behalf of a developer who wanted to do something in (or near) an SAC. This process would consider the likely impact of the plan or project on the integrity of the protected features. The decision on whether to license an activity ultimately rests with the MMO (Marine Management Organisation).

Fishing Activity is being handled through a separate process due to its more widespread nature and high variance of gear types and activities. Fishing activities have been ranked according to their potential impact to features and IFCAs (Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities) and the MMO have been tasked with ensuring that where features could be damaged from fishing gear, then byelaws are introduced to restrict these activities. This will be an ongoing process to ensure that features in new MPAs will be managed if they are likely to be sensitive to fishing activities.

Estuaries such as the Tamar, Humber and Severn where there are SACs in areas which also have a wide variety and high intensity of human activities have management schemes which allow Relevant Authorities to operate collaboratively.

Surveys to determine the status of a feature need to take place as part of a regular reporting process for European Marine Sites. These condition assessments provide conservation advisors with the information they need to determine if management is effective.

Effective management at sea

On land, it is normal to carry out conservation by managing land in a more active sense for example by creating ponds and hedgerows. It is also possible to map and assess the health and extent of species and habitats relatively easily and robustly. At sea, this is much more difficult since we don’t have the resources or technology to do this. We therefore need to rely on habitats being protected from damaging human activities to recover themselves. The speed and nature of this recovery is inherently uncertain.

The use of the precautionary principle is important; it essentially means that where you are not sure about what is happening, it is best to err on the safe side. For most habitats and species that live in the sea, it is very difficult to determine their condition and if they are getting better or worse. It is often difficult to separate natural variation in habitat condition and natural disturbance with impacts caused by humans. We often need to rely on general indicators or extrapolate and model our knowledge from one site across many others.

The use of expert advice and precaution has an important role to play in identifying when a feature is likely to be sensitive to certain fishing gears. Ultimately we need to ensure that MPAs are being effective in their job of protecting our marine habitats and species from harm caused by humans. Over time, we will gain a greater knowledge of how different marine species and habitats are impacted and how they recover.

MCZs

Marine Conservation Zones are being set up under the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) in order to capture the full range of marine habitats and species. Government’s conservation advisors produced some guidelines on the proportion of habitats (such as mud, sand and reef) and particular threatened species (such as ocean quahogs, seahorses and pink sea-fans) that they wanted to ensure were protected.

50 MCZs have been put in place around England in two tranches (November 2013 and January 2016). The Government have stated that management measures will be introduced for the first tranche of 27 English MCZs by the end of 2016. A third tranche of sites is due to be designated in 2017. Further tranches of MCZs will require management at some point in the future.

The 10 English IFCAs (inshore fisheries and conservation authorities) have emerged from old ‘Sea Fisheries Committees’ that were in place up until 2009. Since 2009, IFCAs have had a role in managing the inshore seas, and are part funded by local authorities and Defra. They have committees that are made up of councillors (representing local communities and the funding from local government), fishers and conservationists. Day to day work by the staff of each IFCA reports to these committees, but the power is in the committees themselves to make laws, and change regulations as relating to protecting Marine Protected Areas. The MMO ‘balances’ the committee membership by recruiting from conservation and industry such that a range of views is given and represented at any one committee meeting.

Full time work by committee staff involves scientific research, regulation, surveillance and enforcement of vessels in their district. They have also been given the job of trying to manage and control the activities of the recreational angling sector. A large part of their work between 2012 and 2017 has been to implement management measures as illustrated in this website to achieve ‘well-managed’ MPAs by the end of 2016. This won’t be achieved for tranche 2 and tranche 3 MCZs until way after 2017, as it is a lengthy process to make byelaws to protect sites, gather the evidence alongside NE and JNCC to provide that evidence, and then to convince their committees that regulation is good for biodiversity and fisheries alike. Not an easy job.

Towards the end of 2016 and beginning 2017 there has been a move to produce more byelaws to protect ‘amber’ risk features within SACs. These are features that are less immediately threatened by bottom towed fishing gear, largely because such fishing gear has already removed large tracts of seabed biodiversity in the historical past. Measures are being introduced for the first tranche of Marine Conservation Zones as well. It is possible that UK government will make formal representations to the EU to ask for protection of our offshore Marine Protected Areas from foreign fleets. But this will be a very interesting political situation given that Brexit negotiations will likely start in 2017.

In terms of completing the network of protected areas, JNCC and Natural England have recommended about 50 new MCZs to add to the current 50 in order to largely complete an ecologically coherent network of sites. It is the intention of this government to consult on an as-yet-to-be-determined subset of these 50 sites (possibly in June 2018). Given experience thus far, government is likely to only designate sites that it believes are not going to have too much of an immediate cost to industry. Evidence has been published to show that the designation of sites far outweighs their perceived costs.

We wanted to show the public, journalists and politicians the real state of MPA management and governance in place to protect our important wildlife hotspots. Whilst there has been tremendous energy within the IFCAs to get regulations in place, there has been a slow down in central government signing off bylaws. This was because the initial momentum to change the approach so that MPAs were no longer paper parks has become less of a political concern whilst Brexit has sucked energy from day to day protection of our essential marine resources.

Designation far outweighs management, particularly for fisheries.

Given the data from our understanding of MPAs in relation to fisheries management, the end of December 2017, we can see that the current 51,290km2 of MPAs in England’s seas, only 3,817km2 (7.4%) is permanently protected from all types of bottom towed fishing gears. Of England’s entire sea area (241,718km2), 3,817km2 is only 1.6%.