We’ve just handed in our response to Government on another 23 potential Marine Conservation Zones around England’s coasts. Along with many other responses from other interested parties, these will go into the machine and in a few months we hope that a decision to designate all 23 will emerge.
What did we think? Well, it’s the old school report cliché – ‘OK, but needs to do much better’. The coverage of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around our coasts and seas now looks quite impressive. The growth in Marine Protected Areas around the UK’s shores in the last fifteen years has been incredible, from a handful to over 400 sites. In terms of shapes on the map, it is one of the most well developed in Europe with a total coverage of around 16%.
However, we must not be beguiled by the patchwork of shapes on the map. What really matters is what is actually protected within those lines. The net gain is only when one of these sites actually restricts some form of human activity to allow marine life to regenerate. Until then, they are merely ‘potentially special pieces of sea’ . This unfortunately remains the case for far too many of our MPAs.
The degraded and impoverished state of our seas is still getting worse as a result of pressure from humans. Some may feel that conservation organisations like the RSPB are never happy and always want more. The main point for me though, is whether the quality and quantity of our marine life is actually getting better. If it isn’t we need to keep doing more to protect our seas – not just by adding in more sites but actually making sure they are being effective at protecting the marine life within them.
Whales, dolphins, basking sharks and seabirds are all virtually entirely missing from these lists which means they do not get the protection they need at sea. Seabirds are one of the most visible parts of the seascape, they are top predators and often the first bellwhethers of decline; and we know that numbers of seabird species have suffered huge falls around our shores.
MPAs are designated with named ‘features’, ranging from habitats such as mud and seagrass to species such as seahorse and blue mussels. Management is restricted to the specific locations these features occur, rather than within the whole site. This is why the extent of many these MPAs is more of an illusion than a reality. Like people trying to get past a bouncer into an exclusive nightclub, if your name isn’t on the list then you don’t get the special treatment.
This agonisingly slow crawl towards an MPA network is not proportionate to the scale of the problem. If we are serious about bringing our seas back to life again, then we will need to do more, better and faster.
Today, two important consultations for marine conservation close in the UK. Firstly, there is the consultation on the proposed second tranche of English Marine Conservation Zones (all 23 of them), which fills in some of the biggest gaps in the network. We’ll have a separate blog about this in due course.
My last couple of weeks have been busy finalising our response to the current consultation on the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (the joys of being a policy officer!). This piece of EU legislation aims to restore and maintain the health of our seas by 2020, and the current consultation has been laying out some of the actions (or ‘measures’) the joint UK Governments will take to achieve this.
Mostly, they are things that are being done or planned anyway. This includes the network of Marine Protected Areas (including MCZs), the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, Water Framework Directive and marine plans. All well and good, and we support using these, but many measures are far from complete in their own right. We won’t get marine plans across the UK until 2021 at the earliest, for example. The cynic in me would also ask why the MSFD was needed in the first place, if the existing things were all doing their job – the continuing decline of our seas means new ideas are also needed.
For seabirds, however, there are some particularly welcome references to two planned measures in the consultation. These are, firstly, an action plan to tackle UK seabird bycatch, and secondly an island restoration and quarantine plan. In our response we strongly support these measures: reducing the number of birds accidentally caught in fishing nets, and making sure seabird breeding islands are free of invasive mammal predators, are two of the most effective ways to restore seabird populations. With climate change already having a real impact on birds' food supply, these measures can make a real difference by removing other direct pressures.
The RSPB has been working on both bycatch and island restoration for over a decade, and we want to work with Government and other partners to make these plans happen, and get them implemented. For example, we’re currently fundraising to remove rats from the seabird mecca that are the tiny Shiant Isles - similar projects on other UK islands have already been extremely successful and led to dramatic increases in burrow-nesting seabird populations. A coordinated plan led by Government to prioritise future projects and ensure best practice in keeping them predator-free is a key next step.
(Puffins like these ones on the Shiants will benefit from removing rats from the islands, and help meet MSFD targets too. Photo by Alec Taylor)
All in all, it’s a good example of how a high-level policy like the MSFD can provide some direction and coordination for practical work on the ground. And that’s how all good policy should be.
You can read our response to the MSFD consultation at 0624.MSFD Measures Consultation RSPB Response April 2015.pdf
Almost a year ago Defra published a list of 37 potential Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) that were in the running for possible designation in 2015. I talked about them here as being ‘the gap fillers’; the sites that would help to ensure we had a more comprehensive network of sites protecting our marine wildlife. We knew that they weren’t all going to go forward but the final list of 23 announced today is a disappointment because of the absence of some really important sites around the Isle of Wight and Studland Bay in Dorset.
Much time and effort has already gone into making sure that these MCZs can meet many different needs and viewpoints; and clearly some disagreement remains about the need for MCZs in some locations. The fact is that our seas need greater protection from human activities. They could be so much more productive and so much richer in life if we are prepared to take difficult decisions now.
Unfortunately, Government have played a straight bat on this round, leaving these difficult decisions for a point in the future when they will designate a third and final tranche.
I am particularly sorry to see that only one of the MCZs on the Isle of Wight going forward, with four being held back. Studland Bay is also notable for its absence; and the reasons are the same in both cases. The Solent (the area of Sea around the Isle of Wight) and Poole Harbour near Studland are both hugely popular for sailing and boating, and there is concern amongst these communities that MCZs could curtail these activities.
The fact is that solutions can be found to make sure that boating and sailing can continue and our wildlife protected. In some cases opposition is founded on fears that simply sailing over the top of an MCZ would be stopped-which it wouldn’t of course. As the Environmental Audit Committee pointed out in June last year, better communication will help to ensure local stakeholders understand the reasons for MCZs and their likely implications to their activities.
The use of permanent mooring buoys could be used to reduce impact to sites which are highly sensitive and heavily used by anchoring day boats. This is a technique that is used in sensitive coral reef sites in places such as the Seychelles, Florida and Australia. I really hope that the boating community can work together with Government agencies to find a solution that can ensure that these sites can be properly protected and continue to be enjoyed and visited at the same time.
On a positive note, it is good to see sites such as Lands End in Cornwall, Hartland Point in North Devon, Cromer in Norfolk and the Farne Islands off Northumberland making the penultimate hurdle towards protection.
We know that there is going to be a third tranche at some point in the future. In my blog last year I called this the one where we ‘mop up’. It’s going to have to be a lot more than that now since many of the most difficult issues have been postponed to be dealt with later.
This ‘mop up’ will now have to include some of the most crucial elements of our network toensure that the network:
Here is the list of sites that are the focus of the consultation over the coming weeks. They will need your support to make sure that they make it home:
Coquet to St Marys
Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds
Dover to Deal
Dover to Folkstone
NW Jones Bank
Greater Haig Fras
Newquay and Gannel
Hartland Point to Tintagel
Bideford to Foreland Point
West of Walney