Marine life ~ time overdue to protect and defend.

5691339791_c01097ca5f_bGinny Battson © 2011

Last weekend’s announcement that 23 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) are to be established around UK seas is a small step towards the full protections we ought to be affording our living oceans and coastal habitats. The sum total of 50 zones now currently designated, however, are still minimal compared to the targets set via the government’s own scientific advice. And then there is the question of enforcement, of course.

In 2012, the Tory-led coalition with the LibDems, at an apparent cost of £8 million, consulted on on a total of 127 MCZs and 65 “reference areas” that would have provided complete protection from fishing. 100 MCZs and the 65 reference areas were dropped! And I suspect, in large part, due to strident objection from the ‘stakeholder’ fishing lobby.

Regardless, the MCZs managed individually are not the Marine Reserves that one might imagine. They will still be subject to some of the global human interferences that have led to around a halving of the wildlife in the seas that existed in 1970 (World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London Report). The main caveat granted is that these zones should not be worsened in state, but there’s no absolute legal imperative for them to improve. Yet it’s in the improvements where we’ll see the true recovery so desperately needed.

Into the mix, we also have to understand a sharp reality ~ species have been in decline for a very long time. Reports can be deceiving in that they so commonly fall prey to shifting baselines syndrome. We underestimate losses that have occurred way before any chosen certain date from which populations are now measured.

Our UK marine and coastal life has been massively hit by human economic activity such as intensive, industrialised fishing (plus perils of ghost gear), and fish farming. Time is overdue for an increase in fully protected Marine Reserves.

“What is a marine reserve?
Marine reserves are a type of MPA that are fully protected from all extractive and potentially damaging activities, such as fishing, dredging, aquaculture and mining. Research, education and some non-extractive leisure activities may be permitted within marine reserves (at managed levels and with mitigation measures in place) where compatible with site protection needs. Marine reserves are sometimes referred to as ‘no-take areas’.” Marine Reserves Coalition 

Living in New Zealand for a while, I was fortunate to visit some of their pioneering No Take Zones. Interestingly, in the course of my time there, I also met with a couple of marine biologists, who seemed pretty confident their NTZs were realistically too small to be effective in restoring the nation’s sea life. Never-the-less, the results of the protections in force (44 marine reserves in New Zealand’s territorial waters, which are managed by Department of Conservation), are there to be seen, delivering “a wide range of benefits to science, conservation and general management.” B Ballantine.  If the fishing lobby actually gains from protecting these areas, why do so many frequently object? I suspect the answer is more to do with fear of short-term losses than evidence, and this is a terrible shame.

Also in New Zealand, Māori customary fishing rights have been asserted, with the Ministry of Fisheries together with iwi (tribes) working to create reserves known as mātaitai and taiapure. The iwi manage non-commercial fishing by making by-laws for these reserves which apply to all. Generally, commercial fishing is prohibited within mātaitai. By 2012, 25 mātaitai had been created, covering 32,200 hectares. There are ongoing surveys such as the one conducted by The University of Otago at Akaroa taiapure and Te Whaka a Te Wera mataitai, to measure outcomes and it will be interesting to follow the results.

Meanwhile, in Wales, after the debacle concerning the public consultation into scallop dredging in the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation, a new consultation with ‘stakeholders’ has been opened up in Wales for 6 SACs and SPAs  (for the purpose of protecting Harbour Porpoise and a ‘number of species of seabirds’). These are again different from MCZs though, according to a legal briefing by Bond Dickinson LLP commercial law form, there are some further plans outlined for offshore waters (more than 12 nautical miles offshore).

“Under the Wales Bill, marine conservation will be devolved. It will therefore fall to the Welsh government to consider suitable provision of MCZs in their offshore waters as part of their ongoing programme to designate MCZs at the following sites: Celtic Deep, East of Celtic Deep, Mid St George’s Channel, North of Celtic Deep and North St George’s Channel. Before a formal consultation is issued Defra will work closely with local and national stakeholders until Autumn 2016. Defra then intends to select sites for formal consultation in 2017, and anticipates making designations in 2018.”

In 2013, let us not forget, the Welsh Assembly abandoned MCZ proposals, again, little doubt, because of a strident sector of the fishing lobby. Wales only has one official fully protected Reserve ~ Skomer. It’s not enough.

According to the Marine Reserves Coalition, in 2010 the 193 countries that are Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity committed to designating at least 10% of the global marine environment as MPZs (not Reserves, I’ll add), by 2020. Progress is way too slow and it’s unlikely that 10% will be achieved by 2020.

Professor Callum Roberts, marine conservationist at York University and author of Ocean of Life: How our Seas Are Changing, argues that unless we change policy, all that will be left of our seas would be ‘mud and worms’.

“We need more zones because the network we have is far from complete….The reality is that despite the 50 MCZs which are now in place, the UK’s rich marine life still has very little protection. That may sound paradoxical, but six years after the Marine Act was passed, MCZs are still paper parks. They have no management at all, so life within them remains unprotected. They will be worse than useless, giving the illusion of protection where none is present. The 65 reference areas, the one bit of the network which was really critical, were dropped and while the UK is giving full protection from fishing to huge areas of our overseas territories in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, we urgently need the same high levels of protection in our home waters.” Prof. C. Roberts.

It’s high time the public were more aware of this ongoing problem and encouraged to actively engage in fighting for more fully protected marine reserves and recommended linked reference areas with better protections afforded, in the face of vested, short-term economic interests.

After all, life in the oceans is a vital, non-negotiable part in the maintaining of Earth’s one biosphere. If we abandon it, we abandon ourselves and everything else to boot.

For more information, please visit Please do get involved in consultations, or contact your local politicians so they know how important these protections are to you.