The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has recently completed a consultation on the proposed designation of 31 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ). The consultation marks the end of several years of work to identify habitats, species or other features that are considered worthy of protection.
However, the MCZ process has received significant criticism, for example, inappropriate timing in advance of the marine spatial planning process, inadequate provision of resources and incomplete or inaccurate representation of the likely effects on important socio-economic activities. The desired outcome of environmental protection is in danger of being missed due to the perceived inadequacies of the designation process. In this article, we at Royal HaskoningDHV present our perspective on the MCZ process based on our experiences of the stakeholder projects, feedback from our industry clients and, as Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) practitioners, our need to take due account of proposed MCZs as part of the assessment of the impacts of new development and ongoing activities.
Background to marine conservation zones
The UK has committed to a number of international agreements with respect to Marine Protected Areas (MPA) including an ecologically coherent network of MPAs in the North East Atlantic. This UK network will contribute to a wider network delivered through the OSPAR convention, World Summit on Sustainable Development and Convention on Biological Diversity. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive also requires member states to establish coherent networks of MPAs.
The MCZs project was set up in 2008 by the government and led by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Natural England to identify and recommend MCZs in English inshore and English and Welsh offshore waters. The designation of MCZs, as part of the wider Marine Bill, is seen by many as a once in a lifetime opportunity following nearly 30 years of pressure from those involved in coastal protection (as recorded in the 1992 House of Commons Select Committee report on coastal zone management and planning).
The project activity
The MCZs project divided the coastline into four regional zones, and in 2010 stakeholder projects were established to work with sea users and interest groups to identify potential areas for MCZs. The four regional projects were: Net Gain – North Sea; Balanced Seas – South-east England; Finding Sanctuary – South-west England and Wales; and Irish Sea Conservation Zones – Irish Sea.
In each region, sea users and interest groups applied to represent their sector on a stakeholder group, which was at the centre of the site selection process. All group members had equal opportunity to voice their views during the process, and recommendations for the location and proposed conservation objectives were developed.
In September 2011, the four regional projects submitted their recommended 127 MCZ sites to JNCC and Natural England. A science advisory panel was established to discuss the recommendations made by the four regional projects, and the official advice was sent to Defra in October 2011. A number of deficiencies were identified in the regional project proposals, including doubts on the robustness of data, questions about the required minimum proportion of certain habitat types, uncertainties regarding conservation objectives, over-simplicity of management objectives and gaps in information about the presence or extent of marine features. However, the panel also stated that they were content that if the recommended network of MCZs was implemented in full, “ecological coherence can be achieved”.
Further research on the recommended MCZs was commissioned to provide an adequate or adequately robust evidence base for the sites. JNCC and Natural England then reviewed the sites, taking into account the findings of the science advisory panel and the further evidence, and submitted their final recommendations to Defra in July 2012. They recommended that all 127 MCZs should be designated, based on the presence of 1,205 features of interest. Between July and December 2012, Defra prepared a proposal for public consultation and in December 2012 a 12 week consultation on the first tranche of MCZs commenced. This consultation consisted of 31 possible MCZs, indicated in green on Figure 1.
These 31 sites were selected based on an assessment of the level of certainty in the scientific evidence and the balance between each site’s conservation advantages and the socio-economic costs. It is anticipated that additional MCZs will be designated in future years. In some cases it is not clear from the available literature why sites were not included in the first tranche of proposed MCZs.
There were 65 reference areas also put forward as part of the 127 sites but these have all been excluded from the designation in the first tranche, with the view that they may be designated at a later stage.
Concerns have been raised regarding the way in which the consultation process has been undertaken and the lack of consideration which has been given to the socio-economic evidence of the proposed sites.
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