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A Marine Charter to protect and revitalise the UK's ocean riches

Tom Hickey

12th November 2014

The 2009 Marine Act was meant to result in a full network of marine protected areas along the UK coast, writes Tom Hickey. But since then far too few MPAs have been created, and no real change or action has followed. Hence the launch of the Marine Charter today - to galvanise political will - and manifesto commitments - for the 2015 election.

Crucially, it's not enough just to declare MPAs. They also need to be properly managed and protected. Without this, the wafer thin veneer of progress is in reality leaving our seas with little more than paper parks.

Five years ago to the day, the landmark Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009 was passed in the Westminster Parliament, enshrining in law a commitment to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in English and Welsh inshore waters, and all offshore UK waters.

Successive Marine Acts passed in Holyrood and Stormont in 2010 and 2013 respectively required new MPAs in Scottish and Northern Irish inshore waters.

Each of these pieces of legislation committed to a broader goal - the creation of a network of MPAs throughout UK waters. The significance of this commitment was twofold.

Firstly, the commitment to a network of MPAs, rather than just cherry-picking areas in isolation, signalled the recognition of the need to take a more holistic view of the health of our oceans. This shift marked the UK's ambition to become a global leader in restoring our increasingly denuded marine environment.

Secondly, the 2009 Marine Act was passed with overwhelming cross-party support. Members from across the benches acknowledged that the need to better protect and recover our iconic seas was not up for debate.

 How far have we got in five years?

We have undoubtedly made some headway. Following almost four years of consultation, in November 2013 the first 27 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs - the formal name of English MPAs) were designated in inshore English waters and UK waters adjacent to England and Wales, with a commitment to two further tranches in 2015 and 2016.

In July 2014, the Scottish Government announced the designation of 30 Nature Conservation MPAs throughout waters adjacent to Scotland, with a further four to be consulted on in 2015. The Welsh Government has also committed to a review of existing MPAs within Welsh Inshore Waters.

But despite this, we remain a long way from the ambition of a full UK network. While welcome, the first 27 MCZs in the English MCZ project area were still 100 shy of the 127 originally proposed for that component of the UK network.

Crucially, it's not enough just to declare MPAs. They also need to be properly managed and protected. Without this, the wafer thin veneer of progress is in reality leaving our seas with little more than paper parks. (See 'Taking the 'conservation' out of Marine Conservation Zones'.)

Not one of the 27 MCZs even has an agreed management plan in place. Throughout our seas, 35 marine species are still considered threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

While the respective processes throughout the UK administrations are at different stages, the overall picture is one of a job half done - if that.

The Marine Charter for a comprehensive network of MPAs

So with the 2015 UK General Election looming, campaigners have sought to demonstrate that the strength of cross-party resolve that delivered the original 2009 Marine Act remains as strong as ever.

So far 21 UK NGOs - including the Marine Conservation Society, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, RSPB and WWF - have united under the umbrella of Wildlife and Countryside Link to champion the Marine Charter - a call

"for the swift designation of a representative and well managed Ecologically Coherent Network of Marine Protected Areas in UK seas by 2016" that "meets international principles on coherence, and represents the full range of features in the UK seas as required by the relevant Marine Acts.

"The full network must include ambitious proposals within the commitment to two future tranches of Marine Conservation Zones in English Seas in 2015/16, alongside wider marine protected areas, and must be well managed to maintain sites that are in good condition and recover those that are damaged.

"Such a network is essential not only to stem the alarming decline in marine habitats and species, but also to ensure that the enormous social and economic benefits derived from marine goods and services can be realised for generations to come."

Our aim - to secure commitments for the 2015 elections

The goal of the campaign is to secure commitments within the 2015 General Election Manifestos to complete a well-managed network of MPAs throughout UK seas by 2016.

As hoped, the Charter's message has resonated across the parties. So far 127 MPs and 20 Peers from Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Conservatives, DUP, SDLP, Greens and Plaid Cymru have all signed up in support.

In the last 18 months both the House of Commons Science & Technology and Environmental Audit Select Committees have urged the swift designation of a full English network.

Parallel advocacy is pushing for the completion of the respective parts of the network in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This strength of political, public and scientific support adds considerable weight to the enormous and diverse constituency who support a full network of MPAs in all UK waters.

The demand is also backed by more than 300,000 public signatures, 86 scientists from the UK's marine biological community, and the Sea Users Development Group (SUDG), which represents a variety of maritime industries.

Certainty on exactly when these sites will be designated, says the SUDG, is vital for investor clarity and confidence

We need firm promises with no get-out clauses!

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the Charter represents unabashed and broad-based support for an issue that many may consider to have fallen down the political pecking order - conservation.

Here is clear recognition that this network is about far more than obscure bits of seaweed - it's about better managing the very building blocks of the ecosystems that we have for too long taken for granted.

Yet, we are all, sadly, aware of how fickle political commitments can be. Hence it is crucial that rhetoric translates into firm commitments, underpinned by the political will to drive and coordinate the widely shared ambition to conserve and revitalise our marine heritage.

We all - politicians included - rightly take great pride in and evoke our island nation status.

It is not difficult to hark back to the majesty of our seas. A hundred years ago vast native oyster fields the size of Wales carpeted the Irish Sea; thriving coastal communities such as Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and Grimsby harboured great fleets of vessels in their pursuit of the vast herring schools throughout the North Sea; and stunning apex predators such a Bluefin Tuna, Common Skate and Angel Sharks were abundant.

Sadly, we still have much to do to restore these former glories - and we must be candid that our ability to take great pride in our seas now comes with the responsibility of good stewardship.

Politicians from across Westminster have signalled their continued support to finish the job, but at a time when trust in our politicians and institutions have never been under greater scrutiny, the real test is whether this supports translates into the leadership that is so necessary.

 


 

Action: Contact your MP and ask them to give their full and open support to the Marine Charter. They can do this by emailing their message to marinecharter@wcl.org.uk.

Tom Hickey is Policy and Parliamentary Officer at the Marine Conservation Society.

 

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