Marine protected areas

Ruling the waves: Britain’s marine reserves

Our seas and oceans support a great diversity of species and habitats. With ever greater levels of human development of land, the oceans are now home to around 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Sadly, however, Unesco reports that 60% of the world’s major marine ecosystems that underpin livelihoods have been degraded or are being used unsustainably. Protecting this rich natural inheritance for future generations is an essential task for policy makers.

Marine protection areas (MPAs) are an important policy tool for safeguarding the underwater natural environment. National governments have the powers to establish them to prohibit any damaging or extractive practices, such as fishing or mineral excavation, within the marine areas for which they are responsible.

Usually, an MPA is designated with a list of protected natural features and enforced by a management authority. Small-scale, local fishing is allowed in some MPAs. However, one of the major challenges for governments when implementing MPAs is ensuring that there are sustainable livelihoods for local populations, particularly those dependent on the fisheries industry, while depleted fishing stocks recover. This can require government investment in coastal communities to enable diversification of incomes.

Previously, enforcement of MPAs by patrol boats was difficult and expensive. But modern satellite monitoring has made them a more attractive, cost-effective policy for governments. In 2015, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Satellite Applications Catapult launched ‘Project Eyes on the Sea’. This new system, which the UK government uses to monitor MPAs in overseas territories, analyses multiple data streams in near real time to identify suspicious vessels. It then sends an alert to system users, so that rapid action can be taken to investigate potentially illegal activity.

Scientific research has found that MPAs effectively safeguard the population and diversity of species. They make marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, more resilient to environmental problems like ocean acidification and climate change. They allow overexploited species to replenish their stocks. They are also beneficial to surrounding unprotected waters, as species spread out from the MPA to neighbouring seas.

Marine Conservation Zones are a kind of MPA that have been introduced by the UK. The legal framework for these MCZs was instituted by the UK’s Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which passed with cross-party support. There are currently 50 MCZs around the UK. The first tranche of 27 zones was established in November 2013, and the second of 23 zones in January 2016. These now cover 7,886 square miles, or around 17% of UK waters. A third and final tranche will be designated in 2018, completing a ‘blue belt’ around the whole of the UK.

Because of the UK’s significant overseas territories, it is able to have a greater impact on the marine environment than simply the seas around the British Isles. The Chancellor announced in his 2015 Budget that an MPA would be established around the Pitcairn Islands, a UK overseas territory in the South Pacific. Once established, this MPA will be around 830,000 square kilometres (roughly equal to three and a half times the size of the UK’s land mass), making it the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.

The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2015 general election promised similar MPAs around the Ascension Island and other UK overseas territories. The UK could have a significant impact on the global marine environment, as it controls the fifth largest marine area of all countries in the world. More than 94% of the UK’s biodiversity is found in the overseas territories.

Similar to much of our nature laws, EU regulation has played an important role in the protection of our marine areas. There is still considerable uncertainty about the future relationship the UK will have with the EU, and which environmental rules will be retained. Much of the UK’s policy on MPAs was driven by the introduction of the EU Habitats and Birds Directive, which has been implemented through the Natura 2000 network of nature sites. There is now domestic legislation that covers MPAs, but the initial political pressure came in part from the EU.

The UK has shown that it can take strong national and international action on this issue outside of EU institutions. Through establishing such a large network of MPAs around the British Isles and in the overseas territories, the UK is demonstrating global environmental leadership. The UK already protects approximately 30% of its oceans around the world, a higher percentage than any other country. Given Britain’s historic influence over such large areas of sea, it is a fitting environmental achievement and one that must be strengthened in the future.