Time to contemplate incoming MPAs
The UK government's vision for its marine area was first published in the 2002 document ‘Safeguarding Our Seas’. This document established the UK's vision for "clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas".
The vision encompassed the philosophy of sustainable development, and applied to all activities, from fishing and sailing to dredging for aggregates, generating energy from renewable resources and the associated network infrastructure to enable this to be connected to the shore. It also encompassed the idea of a thriving natural environment.
Following on from that vision the UK government is now developing a UK Marine Policy Statement pursuant to section 44 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (the Act). That statement will be the first part of a marine planning system providing high-level policy guidance in connection with the development of marine plans.
The Marine Policy will take into account national planning policy and will set the direction for marine environmental policy including the uses of the sea and its exploitation set against the UK national interest, socio-economic considerations and both domestic and international obligations to protect the marine environment.
The UK government states that a vital element of its vision to protect the natural marine environment is that it is conserved not by putting up barriers to development, but by integrating support of the natural environment into decisions on the way we exploit our seas.
It is, however, fair to say that within the UK there is still a degree of cynicism from those who earn their living from the sea that their voice will be heard equally with the political bandwagon of conservation and environmentally-orientated pressure groups, charities, non-governmental organisations and executive agencies who despite the world financial crisis still seem to be well funded and well resourced to promote their interests.
According to government figures, research carried out for the Act revealed that a healthy marine environment is worth billions to society through the goods and services it provides. In fact it was estimated that the direct and indirect use benefits from establishing a network of MPAs under the Act would be between £8.6 billion (€10.3 billion/$12.5 billion) and £19.5 billion (€23.4 billion/$28.4 billion) over 20 years.
With the coming into force of the Act the UK will now have five types of MPA which will contribute to the network to be established under the UK's marine policy. These are Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated under the EU Habitats Directive, Special Protected Areas designated under the EU Wild Birds Directive and the Marine Conservation Zones, designated under the Act.
In addition, there is a network of Sites of Special Scientific Interest as well as RAMSAR (wetland) sites.
The UK already has 81 coastal and inshore Special Areas of Conservation and 73 coastal Special Protected Areas. Marine Conservation Zones the establishment of which is currently undergoing constant consultation, will add to these to form the UK's MPA network.
It is of course entirely correct that the marine environment should be protected, no better evidence for this can be seen than the appalling harm that is being done to the environment in the Gulf of Mexico. But it remains to be seen whether the UK's marine policy and the establishment of a network of MPAs will meet its aims.
Certainly the evidence from elsewhere in the world suggests that introducing a planning and conservation regime in the marine environment is much less effective than its terrestrial counterpart.
Research in 1995 indicated that of the 1,300 MPAs that existed at that time (1% of the marine environment) there was only limited information about their effectiveness.
An assessment of 383 such sites found that about 31% were generally achieving their management objectives. In 1995, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the World Bank and the IUCN released the first ever global assessment of MPAs.
That report revealed that most MPAs were too small to adequately protect the species within them and that many globally unique habitats received no protection whatsoever. Comparison of these results with data on global protected area systems strongly indicated that, in general, marine ecosystems receive far less protection than terrestrial counterparts (M Rabaut, VLIZ ,Flanders Marine Institute).
Time only will tell whether the UK's network of MPAs will meet their aims but in the meantime it is vital that those who rely upon the sea for their living, and who themselves have a vested interest in the protection of the marine environment, participate fully in the consultation process that will lead to quite literally, a sea change, in the way our marine environment is regulated.
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