Environment Audit Committee Report on England’s MPA network

The Environmental Audit Committee have just produced their report on Marine Protected Areas. The role of this Committee is to challenge Government’s progress across a number of environmental areas, and this report follows hot on the heels of a similar enquiry by the Science and Technology Committee in 2013.

In essence, the report is telling Government to just get on with the job of putting in place Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in England and making sure they are effectively managed. From my point of view their recommendations and conclusions are generally pretty sound and well justified.

Reading the report, you get a deeper sense of the polarity of opinion from the people that gave evidence and why Government might sometimes feel a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights. You can pretty much find a counterpoint to every point – the process is moving too fast/too slow; more evidence is needed/the evidence is sufficient; management should be voluntary/management should be regulatory…and so on.

I found it interesting that the report picked up on the need for Government to communicate the facts about MCZs. A vision for what MCZs are for, what they are going to protect and how people might be impacted all need to be much more clearly articulated. When faced with uncertainty, I think it is human nature to fear the worst and consequently many stakeholders have become unnecessarily opposed to MCZs. Government have already indicated that they plan to provide more clarity on what management is likely for our second tranche of MCZs, so I hope that this will lead to a more informed discussion.

The other strong theme in the report was the need to put management in place. Getting effective management in place has been a bit of a ‘whale in the swimming pool’. This is the point at which an MPA progresses from being a line on a map to becoming a true ‘protected’ area in which damaging human activities are restricted in some way. The Committee is certainly right to say that it is important that Agencies such as the Marine Management Organisation and our local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agencies need to have the resources to do this job effectively.

The recommendation that voluntary measures should be used to manage MCZs rather than stronger regulation is something that I don’t agree with. Looking back through the report, this could have come from a misunderstanding about how a voluntary code of conduct in Lyme Bay is being used very successfully to support and supplement existing regulation. Regulation gives you an important safety net upon which sea users can then build community management. Starting with voluntary agreements has a poor record of success and is very unlikely to protect sites from more nomadic users of the sea.

On the whole, the Committee have done well to reconcile the broad spectrum of opinion whilst highlighting how these new MPAs must do their job of protecting our marine wildlife.

Thomas Hooper, Head of Marine Policy at RSPB/BirdLife in the UK

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