Safeguard our sea life

Get involved

Get involved
There are loads of fun ways you can help nature with the RSPB... Share your experiences here.

Safeguard our sea life

Find out what we're doing around the UK's coasts to help protect our wonderful sea life
  • Can marine planning deliver protection AND prosperity?

    This is a copy of a blog post I've done for our EU partners in BirdLife Europe, examining how spatial planning at sea can deliver for the environment and economic prosperity, particularly renewables and meeting our climate change targets. Remember to add your voice to over 250,000 others calling for the Nature Directives mentioned below not to be opened up by clicking here.


    1979 was a year to remember. It was when the first ever piece of EU nature legislation was adopted, the Wild Birds Directive. Then came the Habitats Directive in 1992, and together the “Nature Directives” were born, underpinning nature protection in Europe. 1979 was also the same year that the eminent fisheries biologist H.A. Cole asked…

    What is wrong with the conception of sea areas managed with particular objectives as priorities? ... It has long been accepted that the use of land must be planned and its management controlled with human welfare as the dominant interest; why is it so difficult to accept this view when considering the sea?”

    Cole worried that human conflicts in the sea were harming marine resources, especially fisheries. At the time, marine spatial planning (MSP) was developing in conservation areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, and he wondered how it could be expanded to include all activities and areas.

    MSP was then forgotten for a while, but has just come back with a bang and is being seen as the key to unlock economic growth in Europe, so much so that it now has a Directive of its own (the “Maritime Spatial Planning Directive”). Why all the sudden interest? Two words: offshore wind. The development of offshore renewable energy in the last 15 years has been a game changer for MSP in Europe. Several EU countries have used MSP to find areas for wind energy, and more recently wave and tidal energy.

    This is great news, but it also comes at a time when the Nature Directives are under attack and in danger of being opened and weakened, threatening the way in which protected sites are designated and managed in Europe. Some people have claimed that the Nature Directives are hindering economic “Blue Growth”, a favourite Brussels buzzword. But it’s important to remember that the background for both MSP and the Nature Directives are shared, arising from the need to stop further environmental decline, by protecting the best sites and managing the rest carefully, to help allow marine ecosystems to recover.

    This is somewhat of a contradiction to the EU’s vision of using MSP to drive economic growth first and foremost. That is, if properly implemented, both the Nature Directives and MSP can improve environmental quality and investment certainty at the same time. The truth is that the Nature Directives are not a burden to human activity or renewables development. When the UK questioned this in 2012 they discovered “implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.” Delays or costs in sustainable development come not from the existence of the Nature Directives, but precisely the opposite! It is because they have not yet been fully implemented in the marine area, even after 36 years in the case of the Birds Directive.

    And you could say the same about MSP. The absence of a clear system for allocating human uses at sea led to a free-for-all attitude which caused the overexploitation of resources that H.A. Cole described. In theory at least, MSP can support the Directives in restoring the environment, by reducing the impacts on wildlife that this human conflict causes. By considering the environment when allocating areas for renewables, developers have more certainty that their projects will succeed, while a clear set of protected areas with proper management measures means that activities know exactly what they can and can’t do in these areas.

    Evidence is a key tool to unlock this potential. For example, work we have done here at the RSPB is showing how seabirds are interacting with wind farm areas during the breeding season (see below for example). We know more about interactions between activities and the environment than ever, and we can use this information to be more careful about where activities should or shouldn’t take place.

    Foraging tracks from the EU-funded FAME project, conducted by the RSPB, show how birds interact with, in these cases, wind farm zones in the UK part of the North Sea. 

    As we move into a new generation, we must channel the original aims of both MSP and the Nature Directives, to safeguard the ecosystem as a basis to encourage sustainable use. Consideration of the ecosystem does not have to limit development, and can in fact proactively encourage it in the right places.

    H.A. Cole’s vision is coming true, and it’s up to us to make sure it delivers for wildlife, both now and into the future.


    The original article can be found at and is part of a special forthcoming marine issue of BirdLife's Europe and Central Asia newsletter. 

  • What are Marine Protected Areas really worth?

    Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel - our very first Marine Conservation Zone

    Something as simple as choosing a packet of coffee in a supermarket can be a fraught decision as you consciously consider cost, origin, flavour and subconsciously the packaging or association with a particular brand and lifestyle. To help politicians weigh up the pros and cons, big political decisions require a formal analysis that describes and compares the costs and benefits for different sectors of business, Government, society and the environment. This is called an ‘Impact Assessment’ and it is designed to help a Minister decide whether to build or implement something...or not. Of course the Minister would be considering many other influences as well, but the Impact Assessment is the formal tool that sets out costs and benefits.

    Our Government are currently considering 23 new Marine Conservation Zones around English coasts. Impact Assessments have been carefully prepared for each site, but there are fundamental problems with trying to present a straight comparison of costs and benefits.

    The first is that the figures for costs to business (in terms of added regulation or loss of access to a resource) are always easier to quantify; whereas the benefits to society and the planet are impossible to reliably quantify. We have some ways of measuring the benefits of a healthy environment such as asking people what they would be willing to pay to visit an area. However the ‘services’ provided by the sea such as recycling our nutrients, absorbing our waste or regulating our climate are vital to our existence –  incalculably valuable, and meaningless to quantify in pounds and pence. The relative uncertainty of benefits means that they do not have the same credibility and status as costs.

    The second problem is that this current format creates an expectation that we can reach a good decision by simply comparing costs and benefits. You might wonder whether the protection of our natural environment should involve a cost benefit analysis at all. This approach suggests that an MCZ should only be adopted only if the benefits outweigh the costs, whereas we should be considering the benefits to future generations and to wider society.

    Thirdly, although the Impact Assessment does identify and discuss potential benefits to the environment and society; ultimately these become lost when it comes to the top page summary sheet, since this is designed so that only quantified costs can be presented. In the case of Marine Conservation Zones, the box showing ‘benefits’ is empty (look here). Those using the summary to make decisions would miss a hugely important component.

    We need to make help make sure that good, well-informed and balanced decisions can be made. To do this we need to present our information in a more appealing and understandable way.

    The RSPB working together with the New Economics Foundation, WWF, The Wildlife Trusts and the Marine Conservation Society have developed an Improved Impact Assessment for some of the new Marine Conservation Zones to demonstrate how you can show costs and benefits much more visually and in a way that can represent the huge, but more uncertain benefits of these new protected areas around the coasts of England such as a healthier environment, happier people and stronger communities.

    It is important to properly consider the impacts to fishermen and other commercial users and the costs to Government to properly manage these sites. However, these need to be presented on a level playing field and with proper consideration of the enormous benefits that they provide now and for future generations. The Improved Impact Assessment will help to remind us that the future health of our oceans shouldn’t be reduced to stand off between cost and benefit; nor is it a tool that can only be applied to MCZs-this tool is something that would be relevant across any policy decision.


    See some examples here.

  • Effective marine planning, supporting a healthy environment

    On Friday, I had the pleasure of organising a workshop and boat trip between the RSPB, other NGOs, Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), based around the links between emerging marine plans and the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). 

    The MSFD has a legal obligation for the Government to make sure our seas are healthy and under minimal pressure from human activity. And marine plans are a key tool to achieve this, making sure that biodiversity is protected and human use takes place in the right place and time.

    So, are the marine plans coming out of the UK so far contributing to meeting this MSFD aim? That’s the question that Wildlife and Countryside Link set out to answer in a new RSPB co-funded report, Effective Marine Planning – Delivery of Good Environmental Status by 2020. The answer so far could be summed up as "not yet". In fact, the report concludes that the first marine plans are actually in danger of hindering the aims of the MSFD, rather than supporting it. It also provides a number of recommendations of how to address this, including specific plan policies to enhance biodiversity, safeguard non-protected habitats and species, and a clearer application of the precautionary approach.

    It was great to discuss these and the rest of the report's conclusions with the MMO, who are currently preparing the marine plans for the part of the English Channel between Devon and Dover. What’s more, there are signs that the new South England plans will hopefully be a real improvement on the first East England marine plans. I’m looking forward to seeing them when they come out for consultation in the near future. 

    Finally, we got the chance to see some of the beautiful East Devon Jurassic Coast by boat, including the kittiwake colony at Budleigh (below left in the grainy photo!). While kittiwakes in other parts of the UK (especially Scotland) are in decline, this colony is doing relatively well, and is one of the most important colonies on the south coast of England. They sit on a headland next to land owned by the Ministry of Defence, with caravan parks on both sides, kayakers on the water and a small local potting fleet, showing that biodiversity can coexist with human activity if they are not having an impact on the birds or their prey. 

    It was a great day and one we’ll repeat soon, I’m sure!


    Follow me on Twitter!