Marine Conservation Zones Reach Significant Waypoint

6th September 2011 in MPAs

With the site recommendations by the four English regional MCZ projects due to be published on 7th September, a significant stage in the process has now been completed.

A new phase now begins. From the recommendations of the projects, the process now moves to the public bodies, government and the Minister to decide on sites to go forward for designation, accompanying conservation objectives and to consider the management measures required within the zones to meet these objectives.


Taking stock of what the MPA Fishing Coalition (MPAC) has achieved since it was formed in February of 2010, it is possible to say that MPAC has engaged Government and the statutory nature conservancy bodies at the highest levels and held them to detailed account. In doing so, it has forced Defra, the MMO and the statutory nature conservancy bodies to address a number of critically important questions that were previously in the shadows:

  • The rushed timeframe for the process of designating MCZs
  • Weaknesses in the fishing industry representation on the regional projects
  • The weakness of the science and knowledge base being used to make decisions on site selections.
  • The issue of displacement of fishing vessels from their customary fishing grounds

At the local level, representatives from the Coalition’s constituent bodies, including the NFFO, have worked hard against difficult odds to ensure that the final recommendations at least avoid the worst site selections. It is fair to say that these efforts have not removed all the possible dangers, given the scale of the task and the forces arrayed against them. These included working:

  • Within a timeframe that has precluded careful consideration and refinement of the site selections
  • Across multiple fisheries, again without adequate time for wider consultation
  • Within a framework which despite pretensions as a process of stakeholder engagement, was essentially a top-down application of a set of theoretical design rules, overseen by a science advisory panel, the membership and composition of which has been challenged by the Coalition for its lack of balance
  • With “stakeholders” some of whom actually have little or no stake in the outcomes and others who hold a political agenda to constrain fishing, with or without evidence
  • Within a process that tended to isolate dissent or expressions of concern from the sea users affected as minority positions within a broader silent or unconcerned “consent”

At least part of these problems can be traced back to the Marine and Coastal Access Act, passed into law in an atmosphere of feverish moral panic and which inadequately addressed how to achieve an appropriate balance between the marine environment and human use.

The need to protect rare and vulnerable marine life is understood and supported by all associated with the MPA Fishing Coalition. Nonetheless, the percentage targets required in the ecological network guidance provided by statutory nature conservation bodies to guide the selection process goes well beyond what is reasonable or justifiable, given that some estimates put the trawling footprint as covering between 5.4% and 21.4% of English and Welsh waters. Even “rare and threatened” features have already turned out to be quite common when the evidence has been gathered. Leaving aside the celebrated pink sea fan, once thought rare and now seen as “widespread”, sabellaria spinulosa reef (ross worm), also once thought rare and threatened turns out to be far from rare and thrives in areas that are subject to extensive disturbance.

At their worst, the Projects have deliberately selected sites in areas and on sea bed that forms the basis for sustainable fisheries – mud and the nephrops fishery being the worst example. The harmful economic, social and environmental consequences of this approach have been ignored.

One of the immediate tasks facing the Coalition is to right the wrongs in the recommendations or at least to ensure that they don’t go forward as candidate MCZs to become part of the designated network.

Conservation Objectives and Management Measures

The beginning of consideration of the conservation objectives and measures (which could range from light monitoring to complete closure) marks an important juncture. Whereas the statutory nature conservancy bodies have so far played a central role, it has been made clear that management decisions will be made by the fisheries managers – IFCAs, Marine Management Organisation, Defra, devolved administrations and the CFP, dependent on their area of jurisdiction.

In the regional projects, the transition between identifying sites and considering possible management measures has, however, proven to be problematic, with the regional stakeholder groups in some cases invited to make broad recommendations on the type of management measures required to achieve conservation objectives – to maintain the existing conservation status of an area, or to “recover” it from a degraded state. It is highly inappropriate for broad stakeholder groups to be allocated a role in determining management measures that apply exclusively to the fishing industry. They lack the expertise and legitimate interest for this role, which should be the direct and exclusive role of fisheries managers and the relevant fishing industry representatives.

Given their inappropriate composition and remit it is perhaps not surprising that some of the Stakeholder Groups, against the express opinion of the fishing sector representatives, have sought blanket bans on mobile fishing within many MCZs. In other cases initial assessments conducted by the statutory nature conservation bodies in collaboration with public authorities have also identified blanket bans. If this crude and disproportionate approach was accepted it would rule out any form of agreed zoning within MCZs, through which protection can be provided for a vulnerable feature, whilst also allowing fishing within the remaining parts of the MCZ. Without this type of approach the displacement effects would be huge and the social and economic costs enormous.

Another area of controversy lies with “reference areas” - additional MCZs to be left as “controls” for scientific monitoring but which would ban all forms of fishing. Whilst we support marine science, where it has a clearly defined and legitimate purpose, reference areas themselves have no legal basis in the Marine Act, are so far undefined and isolated from any coherent scientific programme, and are being scattered like confetti as an ecologist’s wish list.

Thankfully, the Coalition’s discussions with Defra and the NFFO’s discussions with the MMO, point to a more constructive, reasoned and proportionate approach. Having learned the lessons of a blunt and crude approach in Lyme Bay, fisheries managers appear eager to avoid repeating the same mistakes. The Coalition has from its inception made plain that it believes that there is a good way and a bad way to introduce a network of MCZs and a constructive, balanced dialogue between decision makes and the people in the fishing industry affected lies at the heart of the right approach.

The MPA Fishing Coalition has served its purpose well through the regional project recommendation process and will now turn to the task of resisting poorly conceived site selections and ensuring that management measures are applied in a fair and balanced way.