There has been much in the media recently about the proposed designation of the Ascension Island marine protected area. This designation, when it comes to fruition, will protect 234,291km2 of ocean from potentially harmful activities. While the Conservative governments’ ambition to create a ‘blue belt’ around the UK and its overseas territories is admirable it is important that we are not too captivated by achievements overseas and remember to protect those waters closer to home. Today we took a wonderful step towards that goal.
In 2013 the UK government designated 27 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in English and Secretary of State waters that in total protected 9,664km2 of our seas. The announcement this morning that of the 23 sites considered for designation as part of the second tranche of MCZs all will be formally designated is a fantastic triumph for conservation. This designation will protect a further 10,810km2 of our seas bringing the total protected area to 20,474km2. Our total of 50 MCZs in English waters will protect a fantastic array of nationally important habitats and species. For example, the Mounts Bay MCZ will protect important Zostera marina seagrass beds and the tiny stalked jellyfish Lucernariopsis campanulata. The Fulmar MCZ will protect an area of muddy seabed that is an important feeding area for seabirds and habitat for sea pens Pennatula phosphorea and burrowing megafauna. The Lands End (Runnel Stone) MCZ will protect an area important for the impressive and elegant Pink Sea Fan Eunicella verrucosa. These are just some of the features in some of the sites which will be protected as part of our rich natural heritage for future generations to enjoy.
These designations have come about as a result of the hard and tireless labours of many people. From conservation NGOs such at The Wildlife Trusts and The Marine Conservation Society, government departments and organisations such as Defra and JNCC to the countless members of the public, businesses and stakeholder groups that were actively involved in the consultation process. To all of them I say thank you. This achievement is remarkable not just for the habitats and species it protects but for the process in which it was reached. In contrast to many other marine reserve designations in other countries, the path to today was stakeholder led. This means that the UK government asked us, the people, what we wanted and they listened.
We must now remember that the journey is not over. In their landmark Nature paper Edgar et al (2014) made compelling arguments that in order for Marine Protected Areas (essentially a synonym for our MCZs) to maximise their success they must meet five key requirements:
- They must be no take
- They must be well enforced
- They must be old (>10 years)
- They must be large (>100km2)
- They must be isolated by deep water or sand.
Even ignoring point three as these are new sites then none of our new MCZs meet these criteria and some will never be reached for well thought out and practical reasons. Instead the UK government is aiming for an ecologically coherent network of MCZs. This means protecting a variety of habitats and species from damaging activities using smaller, geographically close zones whilst allowing sustainable use. We now have 50 zones and this is closer to what we would call a ‘network’ but it is still not enough, we need to fill in the ecological gaps and protect even more of our amazing marine wildlife and habitats. In particular we should for further protection of undervalued muddy seabed habitats that are both sensitive to disturbance and are home to a unique and biodiverse array of fauna.
So what can you do? Firstly I would urge you to become a Friend of Marine Conservation Zones at http://action.wildlifetrusts.org/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1823&ea.campaign.id=28581 to be kept updated on important information and progress, to be given guidance on how to respond to consultations and to show your support for the local and national work of The Wildlife Trusts in campaigning for better protection for our seas.
Secondly, congratulate the people who made the announcement today possible. Write to Defra or your local MP and tell them how pleased you are with the progress they have made but remind them that there is still much to be done and that you look forward to even more protection for our seas in the future.
Thirdly, remember that the sea is for everybody. Be open minded to other people’s views and requirements for the marine environment. It is only by working with other stakeholders will we achieve protection for our seas that is both real and long lasting.
Finally, celebrate. We should be proud of the progress the UK is making in marine conservation, we are true international leaders in this area. Tell your friends and family about how great our seas are and what great headway was made to protect them today.
Edgar, G.J., Stuart-Smith, R.D., Willis, T.J., Kininmonth, S., Baker, S.C., Banks, S., Barrett, N.S., Becerro, M.A., Bernard, A.T., Berkhout, J. and Buxton, C.D., 2014. Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features. Nature, 506(7487), pp.216-220.