Will a bigger blue belt turn the tide for sea life?

The conservation sector welcomes the announcement by Defra today of 41 new Marine Conservation Zones. Nearly doubling the number of conservation zones in English and Secretary of State Waters is a big step forward, but 11 charities, 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 collective UK Governments’ admission that our oceans are in poor health is a wake-up call;  we must grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity to turn the tide on biodiversity loss. 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.

Environmentalists have spoken out:

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.’

21,000 people took part in last summer’s MCS campaign urging Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to be ambitious and designate 41 sites offered for public consultation at the time. The new MCZs include inshore and offshore areas around the coast and will protect a range of marine wildlife including worms, starfish, sea firs, sea urchins, spiny lobster, molluscs, fan mussels, tentacled lagoon worm, short-snouted seahorse and native oyster. A wide variety of habitats will also be protected including sand, tidal mud, rocky reefs and gravel.

Key fact:

  • By 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Sarah Denman, UK Environment Lawyer at ClientEarth, said: ‘The Government must make sure it is not creating paper parks, with words that wash away when it comes to real protection for our ocean. The key threat to these sites is unsustainable fishing that continues to deplete at-risk species. Management must be effective in preventing damaging practices taking place in these areas; otherwise, our ocean’s future will continue to be fished away.’

Joan Edwards, Director of Living Seas at The Wildlife Trusts, said: “It’s fantastic news that now we have 41 Marine Conservation Zones – they will form a vital series of underwater habitats which can be nursed back to health. We’ve been calling for the Government to give real protection to a network of diverse sea-bed landscapes since 2009 and over 22,000 people joined The Wildlife Trusts call for better protection of our seas during last summer’s consultation.  Huge thanks to everyone who has supported this change! Now we need to see good management of these special places to stop damaging activities such as beam-trawling or dredging for scallops and langoustines which harm  fragile marine wildlife.”


Key Fact:

  • Around 12 million tonnes of plastics end up in the ocean each year (Eunomia)


Sonja Eisfeld-Pierantonio, Policy officer at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said: ‘Not only do we need to police the Blue Belt we have, but we also need to broaden protection to areas where wide-roaming species, such as whales, dolphins and porpoises are at risk. This should be a key aim for the Government as it is failing to meet its Marine Strategy targets for these vulnerable species.’

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. It’s great that the UK is nearing 30% coverage of its waters protected by such areas, but in reality, they are very poorly monitored and we have little evidence that wildlife is benefitting. 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.”

A local solution which has spread and spread

Key Fact:

  • Plastic bottles make up almost a fifth of non-fishing plastic debris in the oceans (source).

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.  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 NGOs 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.
  • 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


Key Fact:


  • The Great British Beach Clean 2018 found 182.6 pieces of plastic per 100m on British beaches

    White seal on Lundy with plastic stuck round its neck

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