The Environmental Audit Committee have just produced their report on Marine Protected Areas. The role of this Committee is to challenge Government’s progress across a number of environmental areas, and this report follows hot on the heels of a similar enquiry by the Science and Technology Committee in 2013.
In essence, the report is telling Government to just get on with the job of putting in place Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in England and making sure they are effectively managed. From my point of view their recommendations and conclusions are generally pretty sound and well justified.
Reading the report, you get a deeper sense of the polarity of opinion from the people that gave evidence and why Government might sometimes feel a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights. You can pretty much find a counterpoint to every point – the process is moving too fast/too slow; more evidence is needed/the evidence is sufficient; management should be voluntary/management should be regulatory...and so on.
I found it interesting that the report picked up on the need for Government to communicate the facts about MCZs. A vision for what MCZs are for, what they are going to protect and how people might be impacted all need to be much more clearly articulated. When faced with uncertainty, I think it is human nature to fear the worst and consequently many stakeholders have become unnecessarily opposed to MCZs. Government have already indicated that they plan to provide more clarity on what management is likely for our second tranche of MCZs, so I hope that this will lead to a more informed discussion.
The other strong theme in the report was the need to put management in place. Getting effective management in place has been a bit of a ‘whale in the swimming pool’. This is the point at which an MPA progresses from being a line on a map to becoming a true ‘protected’ area in which damaging human activities are restricted in some way. The Committee is certainly right to say that it is important that Agencies such as the Marine Management Organisation and our local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agencies need to have the resources to do this job effectively.
The recommendation that voluntary measures should be used to manage MCZs rather than stronger regulation is something that I don’t agree with. Looking back through the report, this could have come from a misunderstanding about how a voluntary code of conduct in Lyme Bay is being used very successfully to support and supplement existing regulation. Regulation gives you an important safety net upon which sea users can then build community management. Starting with voluntary agreements has a poor record of success and is very unlikely to protect sites from more nomadic users of the sea.
On the whole, the Committee have done well to reconcile the broad spectrum of opinion whilst highlighting how these new MPAs must do their job of protecting our marine wildlife.
Guest post by Jean Bradford MBE. Since 1983, Jean has run the South Devon Seabird Trust which specialises in the rescue, treatment and rehabilitation of oiled seabirds, particularly guillemots. Over the years there has been much comment on the survival rates of birds released into the wild following rehabilitation. As Jean writes below in a recent email to RSPB and others, with proper care, and if nurtured back to a healthy body weight, these birds can potentially live a long time ...
Image: Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com)
No doubt several rehabilitators will have had ringing recoveries for auks that met their fate during the very severe Atlantic storms which lashed Spain, France and the south-west of the UK last winter. I am informed by the RSPB that over 30,000 seabirds, the vast majority of which were auks, perished in this violent weather.
Two of our guillemots were caught up in this disaster, and whilst, under normal circumstances, I would not bring this to anyone’s attention, one of the recoveries in particular warrants a place in our Rehabilitation Case Histories.
This particular guillemot was found at Jard-sur-Mer, France on 8th February 2014, freshly dead - reason: 'violent weather'. Duration of time between release and finding was 4996 days.
We had released this bird on June 5th 2000 after almost 6 months in care. It had been admitted to our centre on December 30th 1999, heavily contaminated with oil AND injured, necessitating an operation on its wing. Its 'recorded weight' at time of release was 715g.
It had been weighed on two previous occasions prior to release - on March 6th it weighed 700g and on May 2nd weighed 685g.
The point I’d like to make is that some rehabilitators might consider that this bird had all the hallmarks of one that might not survive. However, not only did it survive a) heavy oiling, b) an operation, c) a longer than normal time in care and d) being only 715g at time of release, it went on to have another (almost) 14 years of life. In my opinion it deserves a place in the file of case studies for future reference.
Incidentally the other ringing recovery was for a guillemot which we had released on March 9th, 1999 and was found almost 15 years (5465 days) later at Getaria, Spain. It is recorded as freshly dead on shore due to the storms. Its 'recorded weight' at time of release was 825g. As far as our records are concerned it did not have any notable problems other than being a victim of oil pollution. However, it too is testament to the fact that oiled auks do survive rehabilitation.
You can find out more about the trust at http://www.seabirdtrust.co.uk/
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.