Guest blog by Gareth Cunningham, RSPB Head of Nature Policy.

Britain is home to over 8 million seabirds and holds globally important populations of species such as puffins, Manx shearwaters and gannets, its waters providing rich feeding grounds for their hungry chicks. Back in 2016 we called on the UK Government to protect some of England’s most important areas for seabirds.

Today, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, announced 41 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) around England and Northern Ireland.

These are the sites the UK Government consulted on last year, representing the “final tranche” of MCZs that the UK Government is to designate. The announcement, however, is a mixed bag, and while greater protection for our seas is always a welcome, so-called mobile species such as seabirds have not benefited nearly as much as we had hoped.

But first let’s focus on the good news that a new site that spans the Northumberland coast now offers year-round protection to eider, the county's emblem bird, known locally as the ‘Cuddy duck’. This diving sea duck nests on the coast, rears its offspring in sheltered waters and spends the winter here too. Unfortunately, eider numbers have been falling despite our best efforts to protect its breeding areas (e.g. RSPB’s Coquet Island). We hope that this new MCZ, as part of a well-managed network of protected areas, will help to secure the future of eider by safeguarding the waters they critically rely on for food and safety.

We are also pleased to see the addition of razorbill as a feature of the existing Cumbria Coast Marine Conservation Zone where this species is in decline and needs all the help it can get. We still maintain, however, that had the razorbill’s relative - common guillemot – also been cited as a feature for this site it would have added significant value to this MCZ.

Sadly that is where the good news ends. Despite evidence to the contrary and local stakeholder support, this UK Government announcement does not include any additional protection for seabirds in the south-west of England, such as much needed protection for black-necked grebe.

Today’s additions to the MCZ network come hot on the heels of the UK’s four administrations’ publication of a  joint report  (9th  May) on progress towards their shared ambition of achieving “clean, healthy, safe, productive, biologically diverse oceans and seas”, a laudable goal they have been working towards since 2012. However, the results of the last 6 years, summarised here, demonstrate that – by their own admission – our governments are failing to protect our seas, and nowhere is this more visible than the relentless erosion of our seabird populations.

New protected areas are an important part of the solution. But if we only choose to protect only one or two species at a time, then we risk seeing an even greater reduction in numbers.  It is clear that we need a major recovery plan for our seabirds, one that sets out clear and decisive action to reverse their decline.

This is why the RSPB is calling for a comprehensive Seabird recovery plan..

For now, let’s celebrate that the “Cuddy duck” will continue to be a part of Northumberland’s rich heritage. We hope that today’s announcement is an indication that the UK Government is taking the plight of our seabirds seriously and that more action will swiftly follow.

  • All the targets set in the legislation should be easily achievable. Many use the words " not significantly impacted by human activities"  yet by 2020 when the targets should have been met there has been little progress. Only Scotland has got itself somewhat ready by 2019 and even there progress has not been good, but may yet happen. In England the announcement of zones without any enforcement may as well not have happened. The first legislation which has failed to meet these targets was passed in 2010. The biodiversity of our seas is decreasing, destructive fishing techniques are still allowed almost anywhere, and bird populations are still on the same downward curve. We really need politicians to act.

  • Do you know how many of the MCZs are actually no-take areas, Martin?