We’ve just handed in our response to Government on another 23 potential Marine Conservation Zones around England’s coasts. Along with many other responses from other interested parties, these will go into the machine and in a few months we hope that a decision to designate all 23 will emerge.
What did we think? Well, it’s the old school report cliché – ‘OK, but needs to do much better’. The coverage of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around our coasts and seas now looks quite impressive. The growth in Marine Protected Areas around the UK’s shores in the last fifteen years has been incredible, from a handful to over 400 sites. In terms of shapes on the map, it is one of the most well developed in Europe with a total coverage of around 16%.
However, we must not be beguiled by the patchwork of shapes on the map. What really matters is what is actually protected within those lines. The net gain is only when one of these sites actually restricts some form of human activity to allow marine life to regenerate. Until then, they are merely ‘potentially special pieces of sea’ . This unfortunately remains the case for far too many of our MPAs.
The degraded and impoverished state of our seas is still getting worse as a result of pressure from humans. Some may feel that conservation organisations like the RSPB are never happy and always want more. The main point for me though, is whether the quality and quantity of our marine life is actually getting better. If it isn’t we need to keep doing more to protect our seas – not just by adding in more sites but actually making sure they are being effective at protecting the marine life within them.
Whales, dolphins, basking sharks and seabirds are all virtually entirely missing from these lists which means they do not get the protection they need at sea. Seabirds are one of the most visible parts of the seascape, they are top predators and often the first bellwhethers of decline; and we know that numbers of seabird species have suffered huge falls around our shores.
MPAs are designated with named ‘features’, ranging from habitats such as mud and seagrass to species such as seahorse and blue mussels. Management is restricted to the specific locations these features occur, rather than within the whole site. This is why the extent of many these MPAs is more of an illusion than a reality. Like people trying to get past a bouncer into an exclusive nightclub, if your name isn’t on the list then you don’t get the special treatment.
This agonisingly slow crawl towards an MPA network is not proportionate to the scale of the problem. If we are serious about bringing our seas back to life again, then we will need to do more, better and faster.
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