House of Commons Report on Marine Science and Parliamentary Meeting on Marine Protected Areas

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee this week published a report on Marine Science. Here the GLOBE UK Secretariat provides an overview of its findings on the designation of Marine Conservation Zones.   


The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee this week published a report on Marine Science. The report looks at the important role of marine science in helping address the challenges associated with global environmental change, and in doing so criticises the government for allowing plans to establish a network of Marine Conservation Zones to "flounder".

The 2010 UK Marine Science Strategy set out the government's vision of a “clean, healthy, safe, productive, and biologically diverse oceans and seas”. Underpinning this was an ambition to make marine science in the UK “more efficient and effective.” However, as the Committee concludes, ongoing delays to the designation of Marine Conservation Zones around the UK highlight the limit of our current understanding of the marine environment.

Oceans support 80% of the world’s biodiversity, with UK seas home to over 8,500 different species. Protecting marine biodiversity is an important part of the England Biodiversity Strategy, which commits to establishing and effectively managing an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas which covers in excess of 25% of English waters by the end of 2016.

There are currently several different types of marine protected area. It is a top down system of designation that includes: Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, designated under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives; Sites of Special Scientific Interest, derived from national legislation; and Ramsar sites, designated through the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

In 2009, the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act introduced a new type of marine protected area: Marine Conservation Zones, which are proposed from the bottom up.

The purpose of Marine Conservation Zones is to conserve species of marine flora and fauna, particularly if they are rare or threatened, or for conserving or protecting marine habitats or features of geological or geomorphological interest. Together with the types of protected area listed above, Marine Conservation Zones will form the ‘ecologically coherent network' committed to in the England Biodiversity Strategy.

In September 2011, recommendations on the location, boundaries, conservation objectives and management measures for each zone were submitted by four regional stakeholder-led projects to the Marine Protected Area Science Advisory Panel, Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Taken together the regional projects recommended the designation of 127 Marine Conservation Zones, including 65 reference areas. These recommendations were then reviewed by the Marine Protected Areas Science Advisory Panel and their formal advice to Government published in November 2011.

Following this Defra commissioned “significant additional” work to support designation after the Minister, Richard Benyon MP's, concluded that “there are a number of gaps and limitations in the scientific evidence base support the recommendations.” Once this work was completed, the Minister finally announced in December 2012 a consultation on a "first tranche" of only 31 possible Marine Conservation Zones.

In its report, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee criticises the government for changing its position during the designation process on the amount of scientific evidence that was needed to support the designation of conservation zones. Instead of requiring the best available scientific evidence to select sites which would protect important habitats and wildlife, as the selection process neared completion, the government said it needed robust, or the best, evidence possible regardless of the feasibility of such a demand.

In its guidance the government stated that "network design should be based on the best information currently available." A "lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for postponing proportionate decisions on site selection." However, instead of allowing scientific evidence that reflected the best current understanding of the marine environment in a particular area, Defra altered its position to require that the regional projects produce the best, or most robust, evidence possible.

In contrast to other marine protected areas, the Marine and Coastal Access Act states that when choosing sites to become Marine Conservation Zones, authorities can "have regard to any economic or social consequences". The purpose of this is to ensure the zones are designated in such a way as to conserve biodiversity and ecosystems whilst minimising any economic and social impact. However, the Committee's report expresses concern that the requirement to take account of the economic or social consequences of designation, has been interpreted solely in terms of the costs associated with establishing Marine Conservation Zones, rather than their benefits. As the report concludes, "functioning ecosystems and sustainable livelihoods are not mutually exclusive."

In March 2013, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity hosted a high-level meeting in the Houses of Commons on the marine environment. Senior marine scientists and biodiversity experts joined MPs and Lords to discuss the key issues related to the protection and conservation of marine biodiversity, including species recovery, fisheries, biodiversity and offshore development and the conservation of marine biodiversity in the high seas. The Group also discussed the designation and management Marine Protected Areas in the UK, including the designation of Marine Conservation Zones in English inshore and English and Welsh offshore waters.

For a copy of the report from the meeting, email danny.stevens@globeinternational.org.

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