Marine protection must go further

Peter Richardson By: Peter Richardson
Date posted: 5 June 2019

Blog by Dr Peter Richardson, MCS Head of Ocean Recovery

Last Friday, the government declared that 41 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) would be established in seas around the English and Northern Irish coast. While it’s good news for marine wildlife – much more work and political will is needed.

There’s no doubt that greater protections for areas of our vulnerable seabed, and some of the threatened plants and animals that live there, are to be welcomed.

It brings the total to 91 MCZs, which contribute to a total of 355 different types of marine protected areas, in UK seas.

Beachy Head MCZ

MCZs are a ‘light-touch’ type of marine protected area. They allow multiple uses of the marine environment so long as those activities do not threaten the ‘features’, meaning those listed species and habitats the MCZ is set up to protect. These ‘features’ include an odd mix of threatened creatures and plants, as well as the places they call home, ranging from common eider ducks, seahorses, black bream, pink sea fans and ocean quahogs to native oyster, stalked jellyfish and tentacled lagoon worms. They also cover seagrass and maerl beds, intertidal mud and salt marshes, and many more marine species and habitats of which most people are blissfully unaware.

Short snouted seahorse

The Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), are collectively responsible for managing activities within MCZs. They are required to take into account any social impacts of their management when deciding regimes. This often means time-consuming consultation with those who depend on the sites for livelihoods and recreation – mostly fishermen, anglers and sailors, but others too.

As a result, only the most damaging activities are likely to be excluded, probably only from areas within the Zones where the features occur. Lower impact activities, including some forms of commercial fishing such as potting, are usually allowed.

MCZs are NOT no-take zones, where all extraction and use is excluded. In UK waters we have very few of those. Because MCZs allow extraction, critics describe them as ‘paper-parks’, lines on maps with no real protective function. Indeed, years on, many of the 50 MCZs already designated still don’t have management measures in place. Business as usual continues in some of them, potentially threatening marine wildlife within.

But MCZs do have the potential to work for people and wildlife. the Kingmere MCZ, a few miles off the Sussex coast by Worthing, was designated in the first tranche in 2013. The site was set up to protect its rocky habitats and the huge shoals of black bream that migrate there each spring to spawn. Kingmere is a famous sea angling spot, bream being prize sport fish. An annual migration of anglers follows the bream in, from all around the UK, and keeps the local charter boat industry and associated tourism afloat. Local pair trawlers also used to target the bream shoals around Kingmere reef, bagging thousands for export to Europe.

Fishing Boats at sunrise

In 2014, the Marine Conservation Society worked with the Sussex IFCA to bring together fishermen, anglers, sailors, divers and other local interests to discuss management measures necessary to protect the bream and the reef. Finally, in 2017, the IFCA put restrictions in place that limited angling and netting during the spawning season, excluding it from the most important areas; and excluded trawling from most of the site year-round.

It’s a little too soon to say for sure how these restrictions are helping the bream, certainly fewer are being caught on the reef. Most of the anglers and fishermen I spoke to last summer thought that the management allowed them to continue enjoying the site but in a way that significantly lessened their impact on the bream.

Sadly, to the dismay of many, the MMO licensed the extraction of gravel at Kingmere, outside of the bream spawning season, but within the site. This angered local fishers and anglers who felt they were subject to restriction when the aggregate industry wasn’t. The aggregate industry is now working with the authorities to monitor how the sediment it churns up may be affecting life in the Kingmere MCZ. But will any remedial action be too late?

The confusion at Kingmere illustrates a lack of joined up thinking about our marine protected area network and how it is managed. This is the likely result of marine wildlife being mostly out of sight and out of mind, and therefore investment in coordinated marine protection is seen as a low priority.

These new MCZs are definitely a positive step forward, but we need greater societal and political commitment if our spectacular marine wildlife is to feel the benefits of last week’s good news.