Perspective: Designating Marine Conservation Zones in England – a phased approach

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By Sue Wells, Natural England

[Editor's note: Sue Wells is Senior Advisor (Marine) at Natural England, the UK Government's advisory body on England's natural environment.  For a version of this essay that contains full references to the publications cited here, go to http://mpanews.org/Wells.htm.]

As described in MPA News November-December 2013, 27 new MPAs were designated in England in November 2013.  Called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), these are a new type of MPA for the UK, designed to complement the existing MPA designations and to contribute to the developing UK MPA network.  As described by Jen Ashworth in MPA News January-February 2011, recommendations for MCZs were developed by four regional stakeholder projects working concurrently so that the planning for this new network involved an "all-at-once" approach.

The four projects recommended that, in order to meet ecological coherence as described in the Ecological Network Guidance (ENG) Bodies (Natural England and JNCC, 2010), it was necessary to protect 173 sites in 127 locations, including 65 reference areas (in some cases proposals for reference areas are within the less highly protected MCZs) (Defra, 2012).*  The reference areas were planned to be highly protected, where no extractive, depositional, or damaging activities would be allowed.

Although the concurrent planning process had a number of advantages, as described in MPA News January-February 2011, such an approach was not feasible when it came to designation.  The need to respond to the public consultation, incorporate new evidence, prepare documentation and legal materials, refine boundaries and develop management mechanisms made it impossible to designate over 100 sites at once.  The risks associated with going ahead with designations too quickly have recently been illustrated in Australia, where work to implement the 33 sites designated in 2012 has had to slow down (see MPA News November-December 2013).

The Government thus adopted a phased approach (Defra, 2011) and in 2013 selected 31 MCZs that it considered suitable for designation to go forward for public consultation.  The choice of sites reflected confidence in the scientific evidence for the presence and extent of the features to be protected, and the balance between a site's conservation advantages and its socio-economic costs (Defra, 2012).  There was also opportunity for feedback on all the other recommendations apart from the reference areas.  Two further phases were confirmed in November 2013 that will address the remaining recommendations and any new evidence (Defra, 2013b).  On 27 February 2014, Government published a list of the 37 sites that will go to public consultation in early 2015 (www.gov.uk/government/publications/marine-conservation-zones-february-2014-update).

One major concern for some stakeholders has been that reference areas have not gone forward.  These have been controversial, and the regional projects had great difficulty getting stakeholder agreement on those that were recommended.  Defra decided not to include them in the 2013 designations following advice from the SNCBs that these recommendations did not meet the requirements laid down in the ENG and that a further review of both the sites and the process used to identify them is needed (Defra, 2012). 

Given the complexity of the process and the large amount of evidence that has been processed, the 27 new MCZs need to be recognized for what they are: an important step in the process to complete the UK's MPA network, developed with a level of stakeholder involvement that had not been seen in the UK to date.  The public consultation received over 40,000 responses, of which 97% were generated by the campaigns calling for the establishment of the full network, indicating the strong feelings in the country for better protection of the marine environment. 

There are of course challenges for the next phases.  The UK's feature-based approach to MPA establishment (reflecting that used for Natura sites, an ecological network of protected areas in the EU) means that intensive effort goes into assessing evidence for individual species and habitats.  Only those species and habitats listed on the MCZ designation orders are protected within the MPA, and Government needs a certain level of evidence for their occurrence and distribution within a site before designation.  The original regional project recommendations were based on "best available" evidence, as required at the time; but following independent scientific reviews that recommended a better evidence base, Government funded a major program of survey work (£8 million so far and a further £2 million in 2014) to support decisions on the designation of MCZs.

In the UK, the management of each marine protected area depends on the habitats and species being protected, their sensitivity, and the pressures and activities that impact on them.  Management may change over time if new threats arise.  This makes it difficult for stakeholders to engage meaningfully as they cannot predict the impact of a designation on their activities.  It also results in uncertainty around the Impact Assessment which accompanies each recommendation and which weighs up the costs of implementation against the benefits.  However, an understanding of how MCZs will be managed will be generated through the 27 new sites, which will greatly assist the designation process for the next two phases.

New MCZs will thus benefit from the lessons learned in the first phase, and this adaptive process will lead to further development and stream-lining, thus contributing to global understanding of effective approaches and mechanisms for MPA establishment and implementation.

Footnote:
* In the case of the 2010 guidance (which recommended 173 sites in 127 locations), that would have been 108 MCZs, 46 reference areas within MCZs, and 19 stand-alone reference areas.

For more information:

Sue Wells, Natural England, Cambridge, UK. Email: sue.wells [at] naturalengland.co.uk

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