The marine conservation wheels keep on turning (but very slowly for seabirds)

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

The marine conservation wheels keep on turning (but very slowly for seabirds)

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Twenty years ago this month, I started my first paid job in conservation.  I worked on a project designed to raise the profile of our seas.  Back then, it proved difficult to get the attention of decision-makers about the need for protecting our marine wildlife – which seemed out of sight and so out of mind.  Indeed, I remember one senior civil servant telling me that new marine laws would not happen in his lifetime.

I have no idea if he is still alive, but today, Defra has published its latest suite of marine protected areas – 23 nationally important Marine Conservation Zones and announced consultations on 7 new or extended Special Protection Areas (sites of European importance for seabirds).

At times, the conservation wheels can turn incredibly slowly.  It was back in 2001 that John Randall (now Sir John and a member of the RSPB’s Council) introduced into the House of Commons his private members bill for marine protected areas.  This inevitably failed, but it paved the way for a marine campaign led by WWF, The Wildlife Trusts, Marine Conservation Society and the RSPB.  With the help of more than 300,000 supporters, we secured commitments in the 2005 election manifestos and eventually the Marine and Coastal Access Act for England and Wales received Royal Assent in 2008. Equivalent legislation for Scotland and Northern Ireland followed. 

Fifteen years on from Sir John’s Bill, we now have 50 MCZs.  That is worth celebrating.  And 37 years after the EU Birds Directive obliged the establishment of a network of SPAs, we have the promise of 7 new or extended marine sites for seabirds (to add the existing 38).  If progressed to classification (today’s announcement is of an intention to formally consult) this suite of proposed new SPAs/extensions to existing sites should do much to address needs of non-breeding divers ducks and grebes in England and Welsh inshore waters and will be first sites in UK waters to protect the foraging grounds of some of our breeding seabirds (predominantly terns we think – although we won’t know until we see the detail).  So this is a big step in the right direction.

However, foraging grounds used by both nationally and internationally important populations (i.e. SPA and SSSI colonies) of other species remain unprotected, risking these colonies being little more than safe places to starve.  Also, there is still no sign of anything approaching a network of sites in the vital offshore areas for either breeding or non-breeding seabirds and no clear plan in place to identify these.  One of the problems has been a lack of data or sufficient certainty to progress designations.  Our continued investment in tracking seabirds (first through the FAME programme and now STAR) is the only show in town on this, and will help to address this deficit - albeit only during breeding season as to date this work has focussed on tracking foraging flights from breeding colonies.   To date, government is not undertaking analysis of that dataset to find sites except where this overlaps with the very few possible areas identified using their now very out of date data.

It’s clear that seabirds have been dealt a poor hand in the designation process.  The UK is home to internationally important populations of seabirds, with 8 million nesting seabirds of 26 species. Yet they are facing significant declines, around 600,000 seabirds were lost between 2000 and 2008.

Despite threats such as marine pollution and the impacts of climate change, charismatic at risk species such as puffin and gannet have not been included in the current designations. 

We’ve had this silly situation where seabirds would not be included in the MCZ process because it was felt that the SPA network would deal with protection for seabirds, yet the network of SPAs is far from complete.  We hope that this is addressed in 2017/18 when Defra plans to announce its third tranche of MCZs.

So, again, we welcome progress but there is still a huge amount still to do.  Our job, as with any conservation issue, is to find the right way to make the conservation wheel move faster and more effectively. 

Image of gannets by Andy Hay (

  • What a poor deal for sea birds. Considering all the storms they have had to face so far this winter coupled with the total lack of effort by this Government to protect their important feeding areas, it is a wonder that any of our sea birds survive at all. No doubt the paucity of effort by this Government will again mean too little too late to protect nature .

  • Thanks for keeping us all informed, Martin. Much appreciated.