THE BLOG

Marine Conservation Zones Are Not Delivering the Sea Change Needed

20/01/2016 10:02 GMT | Updated 19/01/2017 10:12 GMT

When we think of the many achievements of the Labour government led by Clement Attlee, our minds are instinctively drawn to such remarkable accomplishments as the NHS, a welfare state designed to provide support from cradle to grave, and significant improvements in workers' rights.

But the post-war government, tasked with rebuilding Britain, keenly recognised the need to balance development with safeguarding areas of exceptional natural interest. It was this recognition that spawned the wondrous national parks we cherish and enjoy so much today.

And it was a similar realisation that led the last Labour government, back in 2009, to pass the Marine and Coastal Access Act to create a system for improving the management and protection of our precious marine environments and coastal ecosystems.

Powers contained in the Act allow government to designate Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in our territorial waters to prevent any further deterioration in the state of our marine biodiversity while at the same time promoting recovery and supporting healthy ecosystems. The ambition to achieve was understandably high, and the Marine Conservation Zone Project was set up in 2008 to work with sea users and interest groups to identify potential Zones and provide recommendations to government.

The designation of Lundy Island, a biodiversity hotspot and former Marine Nature Reserve in the Bristol Channel, as the UK's first Marine Conservation Zone in January 2010 was an historic step forward. And the momentum continued when, in 2011, the Marine Conservation Zone Project led by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Natural England made recommendations that supported the creation of a far-reaching network consisting of 127 Zones.

But, just as workers' rights, the NHS and our welfare system are all facing colossal pressure under David Cameron, and as our national parks are contending with the unknown risks of fracking, the drive to better protect our nationally important marine wildlife, habitats and geology has diminished ominously and now also faces even more substantial challenges.

This weekend's announcement that 23 new MCZs are to be created along our coastlines was a welcome change, albeit a small one, from the six years of mismanagement and uncertainty that have faced our marine environments. But even the 50 Zones we now have are a drop in the ocean compared to the targets outlined by the government's own scientific advisers.

The UK has some of the most spectacular coastal landscapes that our planet has to offer, and they play home to a rich tapestry of diverse marine life and delicate ecosystems. But the Government is failing to provide the protection that is so needed.

Despite consulting on the entire tranche of 127 MCZs back in 2012 - at an apparent cost of £8 million - the Tory-led coalition pushed ahead with only 27. And this is on top of dropping the 65 "reference areas", recommended alongside the creation of 127 Zones, that would have provided complete protection from fishing.

And even though Labour passed legislation over six years ago, the designation and management of Marine Conservation Zones remain independent processes. Separate bylaws are therefore needed to regulate activities in each of these areas but remain absent. Worryingly, this sleight of hand by the Government will deceivingly project the impression of protection - a situation that may lull many into a false sense of security and divert attention elsewhere.

Instead, the reality is that the Government will not meet the ambitious targets agreed by Labour to create an ecologically coherent network of well-managed Marine Protected Areas by 2016, and will struggle to do so even by 2018 when the third and final tranche is designated.

Creating such a network is critical if the UK is to play its part in safeguarding marine ecosystems which are at serious risk. But this Government's haphazard and protracted approach falls far short of what is required and is failing to deliver on the project's potential. We must all do what we can to ensure the third tranche of MCZs is comprehensive and recognises the advice of the Government's own advisers.