Troup Head RSPB reserve. Kittiwakes, Rissa tridactyla on the cliffs. Scotland.

Marine Protected Areas for the UK

The UK Government aimed to establish a coherent network of marine protected areas for UK waters.

Protecting marine sites

This network will consist principally of European Marine Sites (marine Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation designated under European legislation), and Marine Protected Areas established under national legislation.

The UK Marine and Coastal Accces Act 2009 introduced a new marine protected area designation, the Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). The Act allows for MCZs to be designated in inshore waters around England and Wlaes and offshore waters around the whole UK. 

The UK Government 'executively devolved' the power to designate protected areas in the offshore waters around Scotland to the Scottish Governement. The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 introduced a corresponding designation for nationally important areas in Scottish waters, these sites are also called Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

The 2013 Northern Ireland Marine Act is expected to fill the gaps in inshore waters around Northern Ireland, to ensure a coherent network for the whole of the UK.

Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve

The future

We welcome the introduction of new mechanisms in the new marine legislation for designating marine protected areas.

Our focus now is on ensuring these tools are used effectively to protect the full range of marine wildlife both above and beneath the waves.

In England and Wales, Marine Conservation Zones will be designated through stakeholder involvement projects. Welsh inshore waters were covered by one project run by the Welsh Government. The focus of this project was to designate Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones (HPMCZs), with Welsh Government having the final say on where these sites will be located.

Regional projects

Four separate regional projects were set up around the coast of England: Finding Sanctuary (the south west), Balanced Seas (eastern Channel), Irish Sea Conservation Zones (the Irish Sea), and Net Gain (the North Sea). These stakeholder involvement projects aimed to give all local and regional stakeholders a role in the decisions on where Marine Conservation Zones should be placed.

Each project collated information on the distribution of marine wildlife and the various uses of the sea within their project area. This information allowed the stakeholders involved in the projects to make decisions about where to designate sites to make up the network of Marine Conservation Zones. The projects had to finalise network recommendations by mid-2011 at the latest.

We are very keen to be involved with the process of Marine Conservation Zone designation around England and Wales, as we wanted to help ensure that an overall coherent network is achieved.

We had members of staff on each project stakeholder group, and supplied each project with relevant information on the distribution of the relevant seabirds, so that this could be taken into account when decisions were made about which sites to protect.

Our concerns

We have several concerns about the structure of these stakeholder involvement projects and the process outlined for selecting sites.

Our main concerns are:

  • The potential for socio-economic factors to dominate discussions.

    The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 allows social and economic factors to be taken into account when designating Marine Conservation Zones. However, statements from the UK Minister have clarified that, in England, science should be the primary consideration when designating sites, and socio-economic factors are only secondary considerations.

    We are concerned that the current set-up of the regional and Welsh projects does not take this hierarchy into account, and that socio-economic factors are being allowed to influence site designation decisions from the very earliest stage. This could mean important areas for conservation are ruled out of the network before the value of including them in the network has been properly discussed. 

  • Representation of seabirds in the Marine Conservation Zone network.

    We are concerned that so far, government policy seems to be not to promote seabirds as features for which Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) should be designated. We fear this will mean the projects will be less likely to consider the needs of seabirds when discussing which sites to designate, with the result that seabirds might miss out on any protection from the final MCZ network.

Marine Protected Areas for the UK's seabirds

Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola, and dunlin Calidris alpina, wader roost at Copperas Bay, Stour Estuary RSPB reserve

Our 2008 report highlighted the need for the increased protection of the UK's marine environment and laid down a challenge to the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations to address this issue.