Marine Protected Areas still need an evidence-backed approach

Posted by Dr Tom Pickerell, Technical Director on 13 November 2014

A year on from the announcement of the designation of 27 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) in English waters which commenced the development of a UK ecologically-coherent network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the debate still continues about how the network should develop across the UK*. 

Environmental organisations are campaigning for " swift designation" of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) though Seafish maintains that the current evidence-based approach considered by Government must continue to ensure that these sites are situated correctly for the designated habitats to be protected.

Protection of vulnerable marine areas and fish stocks is a key priority for all of us - the fishing industry, Governments, marine scientists and environmental campaigners - as without healthy seas we cannot have sustainable fishing. The creation of MPZs, outlined in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, requires a considered approach in order to balance the efforts towards conservation whilst minimising the socio-economic impacts.  After all, the livelihoods of thousands of people stand to be impacted by the implementation of MCZs if not done carefully.

Those campaigning for "swift designation" of MPZs without robust evidence risk us not competently designating the features we are aiming to protect and instead merely running a 'draw lines on a chart' exercise to reach 127 MCZs. In addition, by not considering the socio-economic impacts you risk moving fishing effort out of well managed areas, into other areas with less protection and as a result you may be doing more long term damage to the marine environment. 

That said, continued research and monitoring of designated MPZs and other protected areas earmarked for future designation is vital to ensure we have a sustainable source of seafood for future generations. The fishing industry was involved from the start in the regional MCZ projects and has demonstrated repeatedly their engagement with conservation groups to reduce their impact on the marine environment. The industry is however opposed to target driven conservation measures that they feel have been adopted on the back of a misplaced popular perception that UK fish stocks are at immediate risk of collapse.

Evidence suggests that many UK fish stocks are actually improving, which was the key message from the EU fisheries commission this year. We know that it is possible to make fisheries recover with everyone working together to implement the most effective management strategies which includes MPZs. However, evidence must be in place to ensure those strategies are correct and ensure we have a network of MCZs that make a positive difference we can all be proud of.

*Read our guides on the difference between MPAs and MCZs.