127 Marine Conservation Zones: Ditching Dogma

15th August 2013 in MPAs

Behind the current stand-off in the media between conservation lobbyists and Fisheries Minister, Richard Benyon, over the pace at which Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) are designated, lies an outdated view of how to use conservation areas to achieve environmental protection.

127 Marine Conservation Zones: Ditching Dogma

In terrestrial conservation work, the idea that protected areas can be applied from above by dictat, ignoring the needs and interests of local populations has been long since abandoned as ultimately counterproductive. But this kind of retrograde thinking still lies at the heart of conservationist’s calls for the immediate designation of a network of 127 marine sites, irrespective of the quality of the evidence available for designation.

The Government, for its part, considers that there is sufficient evidence to designate 31 sites now, with a further exercise to collect evidence on the remaining sites. This delay has been heavily criticised by conservationists and the odd celebrity chef.

It is no surprise that this essentially backward looking and doctrinaire approach to marine conservation has now faltered when confronted with the real world of marine planning, the realities of people’s livelihoods, and the need to adhere to basic standards in the application of scientific evidence in public policy. Ultimately it falters because it fails to take into account the human factor - the need for sustainable marine use.

It is worth noting at the outset that the fishing industry is not unaccustomed to area specific management restrictions and numerous examples already exist in our waters. As with such measures, we support MPAs, even No Take Zones where they are well thought through, underpinned by the evidence and introduced after the closest discussion with the people potentially affected by them.

Subverting Evidence in a Panic

It is a curious paradox that the hysteria surrounding the issue of fishing’s impact on the marine environment increased at exactly the same time that science records a dramatic reduction of fishing pressure (fishing mortality) and an equally dramatic reduction in the number of fishing vessels operating in UK waters. As fishing’s environmental impact has reduced, the clamour has increased.

As the Marine and Coastal Access Act made its way through Parliament in 2009, no distinction was made between the state of commercial fish stocks and vulnerable habitats. Vigorous campaigning by conservationists successfully generated a public sense of moral panic that the marine environment was on course for destruction and that urgent intervention was required. The single, simple, solution to all problems were Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and ambitious plans to establish a network in as little as two and a half years were envisaged by the previous government. In order to meet this rushed time-table, the usual standards of evidence expected in public policy were side-lined in favour of what "best available evidence" happened to be available at the time.

In time, the logic of this approach was seen as faulty on a number of counts. When it came to selecting sites, it was clear there were in fact very few cases where there was an impending threat of destruction to potential marine conservation features. Moreover, the levels of evidence, as assessed by the government's own independent scientific advisory panel, highlighted the limitations in knowledge over what conservation features actually exist within the proposed sites. Without this basic information, it is impossible to know how to effectively management sites, or even whether the proposed site was in the right place.

Under these circumstances, whilst there may be certain cases for acting quickly to protect pristine, fragile or rare marine jewels, there is no justifiable case for acting without appropriate levels of evidence. This is the current position for most of the 127 sites.

What’s Important, MPA Network Size, or Size of Human Impact?

Much of the over-heated debate on marine sites (not least in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s gimmicky last series) has centred on the assertion that in response to the urgent threat to the marine environment it needs far more extensive marine protection. In this it is assumed that fishing is something akin to rainforest destruction, removing greater swathes of natural habitat year by year. It is time the scale of the threat was put into perspective:

  1. Whilst it is true that fishing exerts the largest seabed footprint of all human activities, even when counted together with other activities, a large proportion of the seabed is not affected by any human physical pressure. This area is in effect already acting as an MPA. For English waters, researchers have estimated that the footprint of fishing occupies somewhere between 5 - 21%1 of the seabed, although admittedly this methodology is relatively crude and still requires refinement in order to give a definitive answer. This compares with an area of land under agriculture of 70% of the total UK land mass (and that is before counting other human activities). What’s more, the dramatic reduction in fishing pressure in recent years, also translates into a huge reduction in seabed contact with fishing gear.
  2. Fishermen typically have a set of grounds they will return to year after year and this consistency in the distribution of fishing grounds has been clearly demonstrated2. Trawl fishermen will usually follow the same known tows that have proven to give a good return and do not pose a snagging risk to their nets. This means that rarely will new virgin ground be fished and the most complex and interesting sort of features from an ecological perspective such as reefs are carefully avoided.
  3. Large areas of our seabed are subject to high levels of natural disturbance from waves, storms and tidal currents that mask any additional effects from bottom fishing3. Contrary to the intended message when in Hugh’s Fish Fight a trawl was dragged over sculptured marine flora on the beach at Weston-super-Mare, its undoubted disappearance following the next incoming tide actually demonstrates what little effect fishing has upon high energy sediment habitats such as sand and gravel. Whilst clearly a coral reef will receive protection from an MPA, there is a question mark over the extent that large, general, marine protected areas over such naturally disturbed habitats would actually serve a purpose.
  4. Ultimately, the extent to which it is desirable to limit seafood production is an important conservation consideration. Go too far and there is risk of increasing the environmental footprint of food production as more must be sourced from more resource intensive and habitat transforming farm based production on land. In comparison, due to their low inputs, wild capture fisheries, when harvested at sustainable rates, are likely to form one of the lowest impacting forms of food production on the planet.

Human Nature and Protecting Nature

The failure to account for sustainable use in MPA policy can be traced back to OSPAR, the inter-governmental body which advises on the overarching policy in the North East Atlantic, when it set about devising theoretical scientific principles for the design of an MPA network.

In short, there was a failure to take account of the fact humans form an integral part of the marine ecosystem and this has had repercussions, not least in the influence that these recommendations have had on Defra’s own conservation advisors.

Modern fisheries management has come to recognise the central importance of placing stakeholder considerations at the heart of conservation initiatives, but there has been a long and chequered history of failure before it was accepted. Unintended consequences have undermined many a fisheries plan and the issue is particularly relevant in relation to the displacement effects of MPAs. It is quite possible to make things worse rather than better by ignoring this central dimension of policy. Whilst fishing grounds do have strong year-to-year consistency, a poorly designed management measure can, at the stroke of a pen, result in large scale shifts from already modified to more pristine or sensitive areas.4

Lessons learnt, fisheries scientists are now providing sensible guidance on how to address fisheries displacement when it comes to allocating marine space for other uses. This includes, for example, not displacing fishing from core fishing areas5,6 or from areas subject to relatively high levels of natural disturbance.7 The 127 MCZ proposals are worse off for not giving sufficient attention to human nature.

Science for Science's Sake

Initially, a one-size-fits all approach was taken to planning scientific research for MPAs in the form of proposed Reference Areas. These would in effect constitute No Take Zones as a kind of control experiment. It is possible, however, to foresee a whole host of marine research possibilities to better understand the effects of human pressures upon the marine environment. Identifying specific locations for designation with only one type of experiment in mind, so early in a planning process, was simply half-baked. The government has rightly dropped these proposals, which were selected in even more haste than the MCZ proposals.

False Democratic Legitimacy

It is true that the proposals for a network of 127 sites were developed through a stakeholder process overseen by the government’s conservation advisors, but few of those involved (including the NFFO) would claim that this was anything other than a rushed and relatively crude approximation at what was needed to get the balance between conservation and livelihoods right. Weaknesses in the composition of the 4 regional stakeholder groups meant that many of those from fishing communities with most at stake from the decisions were effectively kept out. It is right, therefore, that the Minister is now listening to their concerns.

Righting past Mistakes

No doubt the whys and wherefores of how the marine conservation agenda was hijacked by fundamentalists will provide the raw material for a PhD in marine politics sometime in the future. For the time being, the current hysteria generated by the 127 Campaigners should not be reason for government to sway in righting the mistakes of the past and getting a better informed network that will actually have greater ecological coherence than the ideological MPA network delivered in a rush that the 127 network represents.


  1. Eastwood, P. D., Mills, C. M., Aldridge, J. N., Houghton, C. A., and Rogers, S. I. (2007) Human activities in UK offshore waters: an assessment of direct, physical pressure on the seabed. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 64: 453–463.
  2. Stelzenm├╝ller, V., Rogers, S. I., and Mills, C. M. (2008). Spatio-temporal patterns of fishing pressure on UK marine landscapes, and their implications for spatial planning and management. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 65: 1081–1091.
  3. Diesing, M., Stephens, D., and Aldridge, J. (2013) A proposed method for assessing the extent of the seabed significantly affected by demersal fishing in the Greater North Sea. ICES Journal of Marine Science, advanced access.
  4. Dinmore, T. A., Duplisea, D. E., Rackham, B. D., Maxwell, D. L., and Jennings, S. (2003) Impact of a large-scale area closure on patterns of fishing disturbance and the consequences for benthic communities. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 60: 371–380.
  5. Hiddink, J. G., Hutton, T., Jennings, S., and Kaiser, M. J. (2006) Predicting the effects of area closures and fishing effort restrictions on the production, biomass, and species richness of benthic invertebrate communities. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 64: 453–463.
  6. Jennings, S., Lee, J., and Hiddink, J. G. (2012) Assessing fishery footprints and the trade-offs between landings value, habitat sensitivity, and fishing impacts to inform marine spatial planning and an ecosystem approach, ICES Journal of Marine Science, 69: 1053–1063.
  7. Hiddink, J. G., Jennings, S., Kaiser, M. J., Queir├│s, A. M., Duplisea, D. E., and Piet, G. J. (2006). Cumulative impacts of seabed trawl disturbance on benthic biomass, production and species richness in different habitats. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, 63: 721–736.