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Expanded Blue Belt welcomed - But Governments must champion its protection

Posted on 31 May 2019

WWT and 10 other environmental organisations are welcoming an announcement by Defra today of 41 new Marine Conservation Zones.

Nearly doubling[1] the number of conservation zones in English and Secretary of State Water is a big step forward, but the organisations, co-ordinated by Wildlife and Countryside Link, are warning that without effective management and well-resourced enforcement these sites will be little more than ‘paper parks’ and sea life will continue to decline.

Just this month the Environmental Audit Committee slammed the lack of protection for these areas as part of its Sustainable Seas report – outlining concerns that “Government is doing little more than putting lines on a map’ with very few restrictions on harmful activities such as pulse fishing in many protected areas. This report coincided with the UN IPBES biodiversity report which showed the alarming declines in nature and the huge impact of human activities on the biodiversity of marine ecosystems.

Earlier this month Defra announced its failure to achieve healthy seas through the UK Marine Strategy, managing to meet just 4 of the 15 targets. The expanded network of Marine Protected Areas goes some way to safeguarding our seas from further harm but proper management and Government collaboration will also be key. Some of the new sites proposed cover areas in the Irish Sea but despite commitments, Scottish Government have delayed a public consultation for further MPA sites in Scottish waters for 4 years and Wales is yet to announce its own plans for MCZs.

Richard Hearn, Head of Monitoring at WWT, said: “The creation of 41 new Marine Conservation Zones is very welcome news, as these sites can now play an important role in helping to protect the UK’s rich coastal wetlands, estuaries and sea-life. The announcement of a site designated for the protection of one of the UK’s most charismatic sea ducks, the common eider, is especially welcome. However, it is important that further efforts are made to protect our mobile species, such as sea ducks and divers, as some of these species are suffering worrying declines in population numbers.”

Chris Tuckett, Director of Programmes at Marine Conservation Society, and Chair of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Marine Group, said: "A bigger Blue Belt for England is essential and much to be welcomed, but unless these areas are ‘policed’ effectively they won’t turn the tide for our sea life. These sites will be protected in name only, and our wildlife will continue to decline, unless the Treasury commits to funds to keep them safe."

Alec Taylor, Head of Marine Policy at WWF, said: “We welcome the designation of these new areas, which are critical in creating a network of sites protecting our precious marine wildlife - but at the moment they’re just empty words on a page. If we’re going to take effective steps to save our seas, we need proper management of activities within the boundaries of all MPAs and strict enforcement of our laws designed to safeguard the UK’s marine environments for nature and people.”

UK Governments have already failed to meet legal requirements under The Marine Strategy Regulations (2010) to achieve Good Environmental Status for UK seas by 2020.[3] Now, conservation charities are issuing a three-point challenge to Government to Seas Our Future and protect our Blue Belt, if they are serious about achieving healthy seas. The organisations are calling on the Government to:

  • Ensure effective management is put in place by the end of 2019 to ensure the sites don’t become ‘paper parks’ – protected on paper but with business as usual in reality. This is a concern shared by the cross-party Environment Audit Committee[3].
  • Commit to regular monitoring of Marine Protected Areas to better understand trends and ensure these areas are truly being protected and enhanced, and increase enforcement in these areas to prevent harmful fishing practices in ‘protected’ zones
  • Provide ring-fenced monitoring and enforcement funds for Marine Protected Areas from central Government rather than relying on over-stretched public bodies to deliver funding

Organisations supporting these calls include: Client Earth, Marine Conservation Society, Northern Ireland Environment Link, ORCA, RSPB, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Wildlife and Countryside Link, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Wildlife Trusts, WWF UK and Zoological Society of London (ZSL).