Coalition’s Landmark Opening Engagement on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

10th February 2010 in MPAs

The founding organisations of the new MPA Fishing Coalition met recently with Natural England, JNCC and senior Defra officials, to begin high level engagement on the establishment of a network of marine protected areas in UK waters.

Along with the arrival of offshore wind-farms, the establishment of MPAs represents the biggest potential threat to fishermen’s access to their fishing grounds that the industry has faced in its entire history. There are now legal obligations on ministers both at European level and domestically ( through the new Marine and Coastal Access Act) to introduce MPAs in UK waters. The statutory nature conservancy agencies at present have a massive budget to provide advice to Government on the implementation of both European and domestic MPAs. They are driving the MPA agenda forward at breakneck speed.

Against this background, the purpose of the new all-UK Coalition is to give the fishing industry the strongest possible voice at the highest possible level. It is backed by the two national fishing federations, NFFO and SFF but when it is formally launched, on 23rd February in the House of Commons, it is intended to be wholly inclusive with invitations to join being extended to every fishing organisation in the country.

The timetable for the establishment of the network of MPAs is breathtaking. It is for this reason that the initial discussions between the Coalition and those responsible for implementing MPAs has taken place in advance of its formal launch. These bodies are:

  • Natural England (who will advise Government on inshore MPAs),
  • JNCC (who will advise on offshore MPAs)
  • Defra (who will make the final decisions on site designation and management measures within them in English waters)
  • Devolved authorities: A parallel although somewhat different process will apply to establish MPAs in the waters of the devolved administrations and it is our intention for the Coalition to engage here too.

The new body will have two core purposes:

  • The first is to engage with the process of implementing MPAs at a high strategic level.
  • The second is to provide a serious negotiating platform on the hard cases – in those instances where the regional stakeholder projects fail to find consensus and where political decisions by ministers are required.

The meeting, in Natural England’s London offices, was the first in what is likely to become regular and intense discussions. After receiving an update on the process currently under way to designate both European sites and domestic marine conservation zones, the Coalition outlined the areas in which clarity is required for the fishing industry. Some of these were:

  • Objectives: The objectives of MPAs in UK waters are not yet clear, beyond a motherhood and apple pie wish to protect vulnerable features of the marine environment. The key questions for the fishing industry are: what kinds of habitat require protection? What proportion of the vulnerable features requires MPA protection? How is this to be achieved in the least harmful way for the fishing industry? What mitigation measures are envisaged when fishermen’s livelihoods are affected? These are fundamental questions for an industry that plays an important role in the nation’s food security.
  • A “network of ecologically coherent marine protected zones” is the frequently used formulae used to describe the overall objective. But almost every word in the phrase raises a range of further questions. The way that these questions are answered will have profound implications for the fishing industry: what does “network mean” in terms of ability to fish? What is the “ecology” referred to and how much is to be protected? What does “coherent” mean in this context? What will MPAs mean, in concrete terms for individual fishermen: coexistence or extinction?
  • Timeframe: The timeframe for the establishment of UK MPAs is wholly incompatible with the process of building trust and confidence that MPAs will be introduced in the least harmful way for the fishing industry. How is this to be fixed? The Californian and Australian experience of establishing MPAs both had false starts when an overly ambitious time frame and failure to connect adequately with the fishing industry led back to the drawing board.Uncertainties in the Science: The Marine Science Advisory Panel has been established to advise over the application of “best available science” on MPAs. We know however that this phrase can mean a thorough scientific understanding based on robust data, or, it can mean something pretty close to an evidence free wild guess. How will the inevitable uncertainties in the data and science be dealt with and balanced against the livelihoods that may be affected and why should human factors be outside of the scientific realm (see related story NFFO Challenges MPA Science Panel)? The Coalition is committed to an evidence based approach and monitoring the standard of that evidence will be an important part of its role.
  • Displacement: Site designation and management measures within designated sites are two different things. It will be possible to have highly protected (fully closed No Take Zones) as a relatively small part of a wider site in which less onerous restrictions apply. No-one however, is pretending that, in a so-far-unknown number of sites, fishermen will not be displaced from their fishing grounds. The issue of displacement has not even begun to be addressed. Neither are the regional projects (whose focus is precisely regional) capable of addressing this central issue. Displaced fishing effort can affect the livelihoods of fishermen in adjacent areas. Equally, the effects could be felt many hundreds of miles away. Unless addressed and handled very carefully, there is the danger that the MPA process could establish a network of pristine MPAs, whilst degrading the rest of the marine environment by diverting fishing effort into new areas
  • Unintended Consequences: Displacement of fishing effort is only one area where there is huge scope for unintended consequences. On past experience, a na├»ve and poorly informed approach will almost certainly generate damaging consequences further down the line. The evidence of a large increase in the amount of static gear in areas where mobile gears are excluded is already seen in Lyme Bay. Poorly thought through fisheries management measures always throw up unintended consequences and the more severe the measures the greater are those consequences
  • Fishing Data: On the one hand, fishermen’s information (on where they fish, for what, using what gear and when) is vital to the process of designing MPA site boundaries and also subsequent management measures. This is essential if we are to find ways of implementing MPAS that both minimise the potential impact on fishing activity, whilst at the same time provide protection for vulnerable feature. On the other hand, fishing charts, both paper and electronic or in fishermen’s heads, represent a lifetime’s work. It is not reasonable to expect fishermen to hand over this type of valuable, highly sensitive data to more or less anonymous bureaucrats, to use as they like without proper and adequate safeguards. To date these have not been provided.
  • Windfarms: It would be folly to see MPAs in isolation. Round 3 of offshore wind-farms represents a potential threat no less than MPAs to fishermen’s livelihoods. It is important that the cumulative effect of loss of access through offshore windfarms is addressed simultaneously with the establishment of MPAs. The new kid in the neighbourhood is the Marine Management Organisation with responsibility for marine spatial planning. Hardly yet out of the blocks, it must address the issue of competing parties with different interests on the seabed
  • Socio-economic Impact: The whole question of how the socio-economic impact of MPAs will be measured, mitigated and dealt with under the impact of MPAs is a seriously underdeveloped part of the MPA exercise. Natural England has made clear that socio-economic considerations may be taken into account in designating marine conservation zones. The Coalition’s job is to ensure that they are taken into account, and in a way that is adequate and comprehensive.
  • Trust and Confidence: If, as all parties assert, trust and confidence should be the preferred basis of the inclusive approach to implementing MPAs, it is important to remove obstacles to building that trust. Natural England’s public statements on more than one occasion have sent out radically mixed messages. Legally charged with championing the environment, the organisation sometimes behaves, and can certainly sound like a fundamentalist environmental NGO. On other occasions, NE is keen to stress its commitment to a consensus and evidence based approach. Mixed messages can only alienate and undermine those in the fishing industry eager to build a positive engagement with the MPA process. It will be the Coalition’s aim to curb Natural England’s less considered self-inflicted statements.
  • Outside the 6: In many ways the elephant in the MPA living room is that outside the 6 mile limit where other member states have historic access rights which are enshrined within the Common Fisheries Policy. It would be completely unacceptable from an equity perspective but also from the point of view of seabed feature protection, to impose MPAs on UK fishermen, leaving other member state fleets to fish within the areas. How exactly this issue is to be addressed, remains obscure.
  • Europe, the UK and Devolved Administrations: The different legislative drivers for the establishment of marine protected areas are inherently complicated, embracing as they do EU Natura 2000 Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas; existing SSSIs; Ramsar sites; as well as the domestic marine conservation zones. When these are overlaid by the complexities of their delivery through the different devolved administrations, and the arrival of the Marine Management Organisation, the scope for confusion is immense. Clarifying the roles of the separate competencies and ensuring that where possible overlaps are used positively to meet legislative requirements will be a priority for the Coalition

Ground Clearing

Inevitably for a first engagement, this initial meeting was a ground clearing exercise for all involved. Some important points were clarified. but the most important points to emerge were:

  1. The Coalition was recognised as the principal body engaging with statutory advisors and eventual decision makers in Government at a strategic level on the establishment of “an ecologically coherent network of MPAs”
  2. During the introduction the Coalition’s credentials as a broad and inclusive body were emphasised
  3. Natural England indicated that engagement with the Coalition would become a priority area for them
  4. A commitment was made to meet at an early date to begin dialogue
  5. Much reliance is being placed by Natural England on the Science Advisory Panel’s Guidance to the regional projects on what will be taken into account when establishing MPAs. This Guidance should become available in early summer 2010
  6. The timetable for Natural England to provide its final advice to ministers on the designation of MPA sites is “challenging” in their jargon and “completely incompatible with a consensus base approach” in ours. Final advice is to be presented to ministers on the designation of marine conservation zones by February 2011
  7. The cut off point for the inclusion of fishermen’s chart information into the process of designating MPAs is October 2010, yet the ground rules and safeguards for custodianship have yet to be adequately addressed.
  8. The power of fishermen’s information was demonstrated by the provision of an example of tows by mobile vessels adjacent to but not over reef areas
  9. Formal Impact Assessments will be prepared for each designated sites and will be significant in shaping the management measures (from monitoring to complete closure) that will apply.
  10. The coarseness of ICES data, which only goes down in scale to the ICES sub-rectangle was highlighted
  11. The trade off between simple enforcement on the one hand and site boundaries tailored to accommodate fishing patterns was discussed.
  12. The scope for differentiated management rules within a site (a closed area partially covering the zone, with much more relaxed rules covering the remainder of the site) was discussed
  13. The danger of cumulative resistance to MPAs, if the process of introducing them is mishandled, as a very live possibility was highlighted.

These points, although not exhaustive, provide a flavour of the kind of issues raised by the Coalition on its first outing.

Once fully established, the Coalition will provide a high level channel for its members’ concerns, questions, information and insights.

These will be raised and presented for resolution, in a coherent and balanced way to the statutory advisors on conservation but, crucially, also to the ultimate decision makers in Government.

The immediate priority must be for every fishing organisation in the country to register itself as a member of the MPA Fishing Coalition.

The Coalition’s contact details are:

MPA Fishing Coalition

c/o 30 Monkgate


YO31 7PF