The Dubious Science of Marine Conservation Zones

29th November 2011 in MPAs

NFFO’s Dale Rodmell participated in 3 out of the 4 regional MCZ projects and closely works with the MPA Fishing Coalition. He gives his views on the current state of the Marine Conservation Zone planning process.

The Dubious Science of Marine Conservation ZonesCarried on the back of a moral panic that our seas are on trajectory to destruction, the planning of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in English waters has raced ahead at break-neck speed. As a result, it has often ridden roughshod over the careful analysis that is needed to take account of those groups of marine users who have derived their livelihoods from the seas for generations. The MPA Fishing Coalition (MPAC) has therefore welcomed the recent decision of the Minster to relax the MCZ timetable and designation process and give a greater focus to the evidence base (MPA Fishing Coalition Welcomes Minister’s Revised MCZ Timetable).

There is in fact growing evidence that the our seas are far from the path to destruction that the doomsayers claim, but are on an improving trend; and without any contribution from a huge network of marine protected areas. In particular, the diversity of demersal fish in UK waters has improved noticeably over the last five years and a progressively increasing number of stocks are being fished sustainably1. There is no reason to suggest this trend will not continue


Democratic Deficit

A total of 127 MCZ proposals and 65 highly protected reference area MCZs emerged from the set of 4 regional projects in September (link). The approach through the projects continues to be heralded as stakeholder led but in fact sites were selected under duress imposed by a top-down policy document, the Ecological Network Guidance (ENG), that in many cases offered few, if any, alternatives if the guidance was to be fulfilled. Far from having a strong stakeholder mandate, therefore, many of the sites are deeply contentious. Yet the guidance itself amounts only to an enumerated set of theoretical principles purported to provide the blueprint for an Ecologically Coherent Network. It does not advise on how to find synergies or trade-offs between conservation and the human use of the marine environment.

Blinkered Policy Guidance

MPAC has from its inception argued against what it sees as a fundamentally flawed approach. Displacing existing marine activities for the sake of a contrived ecological ideal that pretended it did not matter what happened to those activities was not just wrong from a social justice perspective, but it risked undermining ecosystem-wide conservation benefits. That is because the displacement of marine activities, and in particular fishing activity from important customary grounds, without careful forethought can lead to a redistribution that increases pressures upon less resilient and more pristine habitats. The conservation gains achieved within an MPA can be more than offset by losses at an ecosystem wide scale.

Some marine scientists have recognised this problem all along2. The Scottish administration appears to have grasped this issue and is a taking a more pragmatic approach to the use of its underlying policy guidance in seeking, early in its MPA planning process, to identify areas that are least used. Such sites have the additional ecological benefit of being in a pristine condition in the first place. Although initial indications are doubtful, the Welsh administration will reveal the extent to which it considers displacement an important factor when it is expected to announce potential sites for consultation in the new year.

Unjustified Seabed Grab

It is not just the failure to account for the interrelationship between ecological outcomes and human marine use, however. The sheer scale of ambition of the ENG when set against existing sustainable uses of the sea and social and economic costs stretches the bounds of reason. Whilst MPAC understands the rationale for a network of MPAs that protects vulnerable and fragile habitats such as cold-water coral reefs for example, the ENG goes well beyond such considerations to include area range targets for every broad-scale habitat that overall fall between 15 and 40% of their total area. Consequently, the results from the regional projects in most cases go well beyond the minimum international targets under the Convention on Biodiversity (10%) and OSPAR (10–20%).

Justifying such a level of intervention should have been built upon an understanding of the level of pressures upon marine habitats in the first place. To that end, whilst fishing with bottom towed gears is considered to have the broadest physical footprint on the seabed compared to other activities, some estimates have put this at between 5.4 and 21.4% for English and Welsh waters3. Much of this fishing pressure takes place on habitats that are already subject to significant levels of natural disturbance from wave, current and storm action; marine habitats are dynamic by definition. Therefore, far from there being a need for vast areas of protected habitat to aid marine recovery, such evidence indicates that large proportions of seabed are not significantly impacted by anything in the first place. Even on sediment habitats that have been subject to heavy fishing activity, scientists have questioned whether there are significant losses of productivity, as the presence of substantial and enduring fisheries in such areas stands as testimony to marine habitats not being chronically damaged4.

Such habitat coverage requirements also place the ENG head-to-head with existing sustainable uses of the sea. Nowhere is this more acute than in the case of nephrops/langoustine fisheries where the guidance seeks to protect the very habitat upon which these fisheries depend. Nephrops forms the largest value fishery in the UK worth £50 million in first sale value and in its form as scampi is well known as a popular family meal, yet every major fishery except one has been earmarked for an MCZ.

In the Irish Sea this has resulted in the selection of sites on some of the most productive parts of the Irish Sea “Dublin Bay prawn” fishery. These fisheries are not only vital to the viability of fishing communities in Northern Ireland in particular; they are promoted as sustainably sourced seafood by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Heston Blumenthal. The scale of closures that could be implied by MCZ designation risks undermining the long term sustainable yield of the grounds remaining open to fish.

Gerrymandered Science

Whilst the ENG is held up by MPA proponents as the bastion for delivering an ecologically coherent network, the evidence above suggests its single-minded application is far from that.

Before the formation of MPAC, the NFFO had criticised what was emerging as an artificial division in in the application of MPA site selection science patronised only by academic scientists in the absence applied disciplines including fisheries and social science. The appointment of what is claimed to be an independent Science Advisory Panel (SAP) to oversee the delivery of the ENG by the MCZ regional projects included advisers that had close links with green advocacy and who were not only delivering research to underpin the guidance but would also form judgement over its application by participating on the panel (NFFO Challenges MPA Science Panel). Previously, such MPA proponents had lazily dismissed fisheries displacement as a reason to reduce overall fishing effort further. During the passage of regional projects, the panel chose to ignore requests from the regional projects for its views on fisheries displacement. Similarly, the government’s Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies which have been running the English MCZ project have refused to recognise displacement as a conservation issue.

It is of little surprise therefore that in its review of the network proposals released on 15th November (link), the SAP has been at pains to point out what it sees as the failings of the projects in achieving the grand ecological vision of the ENG. In particular, the panel highlights shortfalls in reaching the percentage target of the mud habitat that supports the nephrops fisheries and in reaching the number and desired size of reference area MCZs. These latter areas would be a “no man’s land” banning the vast majority of activities for the sake of establishing a set of scientific research dominions.

The SAP’s medicine to the present situation is for stakeholders to be re-engaged to find additional areas. It seems immune to considering that the key reason for deficiencies in the first place is that fulfilling the guidance in its entirety has simply been too contentious once its implications on the ground became clearer. In particular, the half-baked approach to include reference areas without considering a broader coherent marine monitoring and MPA science strategy, has been especially controversial, a requirement that stands glaringly in the guidance as the most blatant hallmark of scientists-cum-advocates’ gerrymandering of policy. A similar requirement for no-take MCZs in Wales does not even attempt to justify them on scientific grounds, let alone as necessary for the protection of particular conservation features. Seemingly, they represent the unjustified cherry on the cake for a pre-existing extensive network of Welsh European Marine Sites. The Marine Act which provides the legislative basis for MCZs has no requirement for such designations.

It seems a relatively small clique of eco-scientists and MPA advocates, having realised their MPA cause de celebre, have been given the freedom to construct an elaborate policy vision virtually as a scientists’ writ. The certainty that this vision will deliver an ecologically coherent network apparently no-one is to question, nor give consideration to other important needs such as sustainable fisheries. It is about time that those hiding behind this “science is right” charade began to recognise that humans do form part of the marine ecosystem. Otherwise, it is not just people’s livelihoods that stand to be tossed aside like sacrificial pawns; it is the sustainable management of our seas that is at stake.


  1. UKMMAS (2010) Charting Progress 2: The State of UK Seas,, J (2010) Trends in stocks and fisheries since 2002, 140910/john_casey_en.pdf
  2. See for example: Halpern, B. S., Lester, S.E. and Mcleod K. L. (2010) Placing marine protected areas onto the ecosystem-based management seascape. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(43): 18312-18317. 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. Greenstreet, S. P. R., Fraser, H. M., and Piet, G. J. (2009) Using MPAs to address regional-scale ecological objectives in the North Sea: modelling the effects of fishing effort displacement. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 66: 90–100. Hiddink, J. G., Hutton, T., Jennings, S., and Kaiser, M. J. (2006) Predicting the effects of area closures and fishing effort restrictions, ICES Journal of Marine Science, 63: 822–830. Holland, D. S., and K. E. Schnier (2006) Protecting marine biodiversity: a comparison of individual habitat quotas and marine protected areas, Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 63(7): 1481–1495. Kaiser, M. (2005) Are marine protected areas a red herring or fisheries panacea? Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 62: 1194–1199. Jennings, S. (2009) The role of marine protected areas in environmental management. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 66: 16–21. Excerpts include: Dinmore, et al (2003) concluded that fishing distribution had become slightly more uniform and that “coupled with the displacement of trawling activity to previously unfished areas, is predicted to have slightly greater cumulative impacts on total benthic invertebrate production and lead to localised reductions in benthic biomass for several years.” Two further modelling studies on establishing MPA networks in the North Sea concluded that:“If areas closed to fishing have low levels of production because of high natural disturbance, and/or recover quickly after disturbance, then closure tends to have a negative effect, because trawling effort may redistribute to more productive habitats with longer recovery times… ” (Hiddink, et al, 2006).“MPAs on their own are unlikely to achieve significant regional-scale ecosystem benefits, because local gains are largely negated by fishing effort displacement into the remainder of the North Sea” (Greenstreet, et al, 2009). Such findings led the authors to consider that MPA planning strategies should be combined with measures to limit effort displacement. Jennings (2009) suggests “this is best achieved by making a priori assessment of the potential effects of pressure displacement and ensuring that the need for these assessments is identified in policy. A process for providing scientific advice on MPAs could therefore consist of a simple checklist of analyses that need to be conducted when assessing the effects of designation, and guidance on interpreting the results of these analyses.” Reflecting upon displacement concerns, other authors have considered that direct fleet management is more likely to be successful at achieving regional scale conservation goals rather than closing specific areas to fishing (Kaiser, 2005, Holland and Schnier, 2006).
  3. This is based on 2004 fishing activity data, see: 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. Further analysis has demonstrated that the distribution has not significantly altered in subsequent years, see: Stelzenmüller, 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.
  4. See for example: Hilborn, R (2007) Reinterpreting the state of fisheries and their management. Ecosystems, 10: 1362–1369 Rijnsdorp, A. D., Buys, A. M., Storbeck, F., and Visser, E. G. (1998) Micro-scale distribution of beam trawl effort in the southern North Sea between 1993 and 1996 in relation to the trawling frequency of the sea bed and the impact on benthic organisms. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 55: 403–419.