I wonder if Bempton Cliff’s seabirds arriving for this year’s breeding season will notice anything different?
The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) today releases the final marine plans for the East of England inshore and offshore areas, a total area of almost 60,000km2. This is a huge area, which extends out into the North Sea to our borders with neighbouring countries, but also includes the coastline and estuaries from Flamborough Head round to Felixtowe.
We’ve had land planning for over 60 years, but this is the first ever time an equivalent plan has been adopted for an area of our marine environment. Seems strange to think that we have never had it before!
Image from the MMO. © British Crown, NERC, SeaZone Solutions Ltd. All rights reserved. [SZ042010.001] © Crown Copyright and database right 2012. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence No. 100049981.
These plan areas include really important homes for marine wildlife, from the Wash out to the Dogger Bank, but also really important areas for renewable energy, aggregate extraction and fisheries, all of which we need. The task of these plans is to ensure that, in future, these activities take place in the most appropriate places for the environment and for local communities, as well for the activities themselves.
So why do we need these plans, and what do we think of them?
Well, from the RSPB’s perspective, what was clear ten years ago is still clear now: sectoral management on its own has led to the continued and unsustainable depletion of natural resources, and to serious declines in the overall health of marine ecosystems.
As a society, we have developed rapidly, and continue to do so, but at great cost to the environment, which has been detached out from the rest of decision making and placed in a “conservation” box in the corner (and which even then is consistently undermined).
The consequence of this sectoral approach at sea has been that activities continue to take place in areas unsuitable or unable to support them. This isn’t just bad for the environment; it causes delays, costs and conflicts for users themselves, limiting economic growth.
(c) Chris Gomersall, rspb-images.com
For us, having a clear and spatial plan that recognises (to the best of our knowledge) where the most important places for seabirds and waterbirds are at different times of year, is a key step forward. It allows the MMO to use this information proactively to guide activities to avoid the worst impacts happening before they occur.
The important thing is that there is a collective vision of where we want these marine areas to look like in 30 years time, and how we are going to get there. This forward-looking approach has been sorely lacking up to now.
That’s the theory anyway.
So what do the plans themselves look like? Unfortunately, in the previous versions of the plans we have seen, the reality is somewhat different. In our response to the consultation on these plans last October, we stated:
“We believe the plans set a worrying precedent for the future direction and ambition of marine planning in England, in relation to the unbalanced way in which this draft plan strategically encourages growth of most activities with no equivalent strategic consideration of the environment... it appears impossible for the policies as they stand to deliver the strategic objectives and high-level vision of plan areas in good environmental and ecological status.”
Very “policy-speak”, but the point is that at the moment, while the high level talk is good, the policies themselves risk being seen simply as a development brochure for the North Sea. We need many of these activities, but the plan does not offer strong views on where these should take place in future, and little evidence that the environment has been considered at the planning stage. I have also yet to see the commitment and buy-in from across government departments and industries to place these plans at the heart of their own decisions.
Much to improve on, in other words. Nevertheless, we still see the opportunity for marine planning to be a force for good for our marine wildlife. It’s also still very early days (compared to land planning anyway!) and we very much hope the MMO has learnt from these plans as it plans for the rest of English waters.
Marine planning is here to stay, no doubt about it, and the theory is there to say it can provide environmental gains together with economic development.
So, a moment to take stock, and take a moment also to look at the MMO’s video which explains marine planning a bit more. Now the fun part begins in the East – implementation. How will the status quo change as a result of these plans? We’ll see.
37 potential MCZs for English waters are being put forward by Defra. They are keen to use the next nine months (before the formal consultation starts) to build up a dossier on the ecology and socio-economics of each site. I suspect that this pre-consultation phase is also about a managing our expectations and we should not expect that all of these 37 will make the final cut.
These 37 sites have been designed to fill the big gaps in our MPA network and are a positive step towards our goal of an ecologically coherent network. Broadly this means that they need to be protecting a full range of our marine biodiversity and are spread around our coasts and seas in a sensible distribution.
Which of these MCZs ultimately go through to designation will depend on them having an adequate evidence base and enough conservation benefit to justify the economic costs. We’ll need to keep a careful eye on this. We know that it is much easier for industry and commerce to put forward balance sheets to show what an MCZ might cost them; whereas the enormous benefits provided by the marine environment are much harder to quantify and qualify. It is good to see Defra investing more money in data gathering, but we also don’t want to have disproportionate benchmarks for what should be known about a feature before it is designated.
To help ensure that this pre-consultation process is more informed, Defra will be providing some more clarity on what the management might be. The vacuum of management information for MCZs has been challenging for sensible debate - rather like organising a town-hall meeting for a new development, but not telling the audience whether it is going to be a golf course, housing development, park or pet food factory. In the previous tranche of MCZs some stakeholders opposed sites because they feared that even their more benign activities would be curtailed.
In the meantime, we will also need to keep watch to ensure that effective management is put in place without delay for our sites already designated. Over the next couple of years, enforcement agencies and statutory conservation bodies will be looking at a whole new range of fishing activities and making recommendations on whether restrictions need to be introduced to protect conservation features. Ultimately the test is whether the integrity of the site as a whole is being protected through effective management of the overall combination of features within it.
We will have a final MCZ tranche in 2016. This is likely to be the ‘mopping up’ tranche that will fill any last gaps and gather in any habitats or features that have been missed out. Mobile features could be included where there is ‘good evidence’. We will be trying to establish exactly what this means so that we can ensure that MCZs can be used where appropriate to protect critical feeding or spawning grounds for species such as seabirds, dolphins or fish that otherwise might be wide-ranging.
Here’s the full list of sites for tranche 2:
Guest post by Matt Brierley, a wildlife filmmaker writing about his experience of creating Trouble in Paradise, the story of the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project.
I don't know when you last had your life governed by lunar activity. (I’m presupposing there are no werewolves reading this). For me, however, Spring 2013 was largely determined by the moon.
I needed to film a tidal phenomenon. On a very low tide - when a fat full moon hangs in the night sky like a dripping ball of butter – many of the Isles of Scilly join up.
This English archipelago has more than a hint of truly tropical about it. But for the ground and burrow-nesting seabirds there’s trouble in this island paradise. For a group of dedicated conservationists these tides have fed into a complicated decision-making process, a solution so ambitious it’s a global first.
It’s 4.30 a.m. three hours since I stopped filming the moon, I’m under canvas, and every part of my being is craving sleep. High tide is 5.17. By then I need to be taking one image a minute, and do that for six hours. If things go well, I’ll get nine seconds of footage never seen before.
Mind over matter, I’m up Samson Hill as the sun explodes over the horizon, all very Lion King. Perfect light. Brilliant. Then the batteries die.
If you get chance to sit through a whole tidal cycle, give it a whirl. It’s oddly therapeutic, a reflective pause amongst life’s rush. Especially if you had the foresight to bring extra batteries.
Six hours later, I’ve got mind-boggling shots that have spelt jeopardy for seabirds, explaining some of why it’s the island community of St. Agnes and Gugh, surrounded by deep water, that have united against a dark force.
Across the globe, other island communities are watching. Because if they manage this… well, seabirds could be saved on a global scale.
It’s the new moon, as dark as dark can be, and I’m back on the islands. On a cliff top an eerie call plays out of a battered tape deck to tiny sparrow-sized storm petrels, in the hope they’ll flutter into a near invisible net. Ringing by these local birders answers all sorts of important questions. And a release will enable me to film England’s only breeding storm petrels.
Flying only on the darkest nights, to avoid gull attack, seems smart - but recently the ground hasn’t been the safe haven it used to be either. There’s an ominous scuttle in the bushes.
Then, from the skies, the gentlest of thuds, and we’re in business. A bird few people have ever seen blinks into existence on my monitor. Bingo.
There’s so much more of the story to tell. Inspirational people, jaw-dropping scenery, seabirds shown as never before. The biggest coming together of people to save seabirds and restore an island paradise.
Enjoy the film!
Oh, and watch out for six hours compressed to 9 seconds of magic, and spare a thought for the sleep-deprived man that one May morning remembered his batteries. But, alas, forgot his sunhat.