British Marine Conservation Zones

Recent years have seen the UK government begin a process which aims to create a network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) around the coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a similar (but separate) network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) being designated around the coast of Scotland (1). The purpose of the MCZs is to protect and conserve the marine environment by creating ‘national parks of the sea’. In some places MCZs will be created where rare or endangered creatures are found, others are aimed at creating safe havens for fish which will allow older fish to spawn and younger fish to grow without commercial fishing pressure. However, the process of creating MCZs has been a source of considerable debate and disagreement from a number of different parties, with anglers, commercial fishermen and conservationists all having serious concerns over the ways in which the MCZ project will be implemented and what its long-term effects will be.

The First Tranche of MCZs

Initially the plans were for a total of 127 protected zones to be created in three phases. The government claimed that if the project was implemented in its entirety than around a quarter of the waters around the British Isles would under some form of protection – at the time the project began less than 1% of UK waters was protected (2). After a four year consultation period the government revealed in 2013 that only 31 MCZs would actually be created in the first tranche, and even this was cut by four to 27 when several were either not designated or a decision on them was deferred to be made in the next phase of the process (3).


The location of the 27 MCZs designated in the first tranche.

List of MCZs designated in 2013: The Canyons, South-West Deeps, East of Haig Fras, Poole Rocks, South Dorset, Chesil Beach and Stennis Ledges, Torbay, Skerries Bank, Tamar Estuary Sites, Whitsand and Looe Bay, Upper Fowey and Pont Pill, The Manacles, Isle of Scilly, Sites, Padstow Bay and surrounds, Lundy, Fylde Offshore, Cumbria Coast, Aln Estuary, Swallow Sand, North East of Farnes Deep, Blackwater, Crouch, Roach and Colne Estuaries, Medway Estuary, Thanet Coast, Folkestone Pomerania, Beachy Head West, Kingmere, Pagham Harbour.

From the outset it was unclear on exactly what protection an MCZ would receive. It was expected that commercial fishing would be banned, not only because of the fish which are removed from the sea but also because of the immense damage that heavy trawl nets and dredges do to the seabed. Sailing, pleasure boats and charter boats taking recreational anglers out to sea could also be banned as research carried out at Studland Bay in Dorset has proved that these boats constantly dropping anchor can cause serious damage to the seabed over time. There would be no wind farms built in these areas as their construction causes serious damage to marine life and seabirds are killed by the blades of the turbines, and even scuba diving and shore angling could be prohibited.

Banned in MCZs

Wind farms, sailing and commercial fishing may not necessarily be banned within Marine Conservation Zones.

However, Defra (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) which were overseeing the project stated that:

“Action will be taken to ensure that the new sites are properly protected from damaging activities, taking into account local needs. Restrictions will differ from site to site depending on what features the site intends to protect.” (4)

This meant the commercial fishing would not necessarily be banned in MCZs, while other damaging activities such as the building of wind farms or other developments may also be allowed to take place if it could be proven that it would not negatively affect the marine animals or vegetation which that particular MCZ had been created to protect. It was therefore apparent that rather than being areas which would offer blanket protection MCZs would instead be designed to protect specific aspects of the marine environment, and there would be considerable flexibility for Defra and the UK government to allow activities to take place inside a MCZs which were extremely damaging to the marine environment and the creatures and vegetation within it.

In 2016 Cornish community groups began fighting against a ‘super quarry’ which would extract 6.3 million tons of rock from a site on the Lizard Peninsula. The proposed quarry work will impact on The Manacles MCZ which was designated in the 2013 tranche. If the quarry is allowed to go ahead it will add further weight to the idea that MCZs offer little real protection to the marine environment. A similar issue has been raised in Northumberland, where a vast opencast mine is being planned near to Druridge Bay, the site proposed for a future MCZ.

‘Paper Parks’ and Other Criticisms

This idea of flexible protection within MCZs led to severe criticism of the entire concept. Writing in The Guardian in 2012 the prominent environmentalist George Monbiot stated:

“What do the terms ‘marine reserve’ and ‘marine-protected area’ conjure up for you? Places in which, perhaps, wildlife is protected? In which the damaging activities permitted in other parts of the sea – such as trawling and dredging – are banned? Wrong … In most cases, the fishing industry can continue to rip up the seabed, overharvest the fish and shellfish, and cause all the other kinds of damage it is permitted to inflict in the rest of this country’s territorial waters … our marine reserves are nothing but paper parks.” (5)

This ‘paper parks’ criticism – the idea that MCZs are simply lines drawn on a map and do very little to protect the environment and creatures inside them is one which refuses to go away. Indeed, the considerable flexibility to allow almost any activity within MCZs has led to many different groups fighting their corner to allow their activity of choice to take place.

George Monbiot

George Monbiot, the prominent environmental campaigner, has criticised MCZs.

As expected commercial fishermen were no fans of the MCZ idea. Rejecting the idea that protected areas could replenish fish stocks and provide a healthier marine environment for all Dale Rodmell, assistant chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said in 2012 that “The risk is that they will be of little value to conservation. They will push fishing to other areas which will then get overfished.” (6) Similarly Studland Bay in Dorset was recommended as a MCZ as rare British seahorse species make their home in its seagrass beds, and yachts constantly dropping anchor in the area have been proven to damage the seabed. However, pressure from both the recreational yachting community and commercial fishermen meant that Studland Bay – once seen as a key MCZ site – was dropped as an MCZ and will not receive any protection (7). There were even wild claims that some MCZs could wipe tens of millions of pounds off the value economies of coastal communities and affect thousands of jobs (8).

Angling and Marine Conservation Zones

With commercial fishing and other damaging practices looking likely to be allowed in the majority of MCZs anglers would have been outraged if their activities were to be banned. While supporting the idea of MCZs in principle the Angling Trust has fought to make sure that the views of anglers have been taken into account at every stage of the process (9). In response to a question by Conservative MP Oliver Colvile on this issue, Richard Benyon, then Fisheries Minister and a key supporter of the MPZ project, stated:

“I can give him assurances on … recreational angling. I am an angler. I have been invited to fish for bass in his constituency, or nearby, by one of his constituents and I give him every assurance that I will try to represent the benefits of recreational angling throughout the process of marine conservation.” (10)

At the time of writing (January 2015) no restrictions have been placed on anglers within any Marine Conservation Zone designated under this process in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Overseas MCZs

As well as Marine Conservation Zones in British waters the UK government has been active in creating conservation zones around British Overseas Territories. Indeed the UK is well placed to create overseas reserves as over four million square miles of ocean across the world fall under British jurisdiction. These overseas territories are remnants of the British Empire and the UK government is responsible for the entire Exclusive Economic Zone extending 200 nautical miles from the coast of each island.

Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island, photographed here by a satellite, will now have one of the word’s largest marine reserves created in its waters.

Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith – himself a former advisor on the environment to former British Prime Minister David Cameron – has pushed forward the idea of overseas MCZs (11). In the March 2015 Budget Chancellor George Osborne announced that Britain would create the world largest continuous marine reserve around the overseas territory of the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific Ocean (12). The islands are actually a series of four small islands (only Pitcairn Island itself is populated with around fifty people) and is most famous for being the landing site of the mutineers from HMS Bounty in the late 1700s. This reserve would cover over 320,00 square miles of ocean and protect the eighty species of fish which are found around the islands such as groupers, grey sharks and other exotic species, as well as the coral and marine vegetation which are also present in the area. In September 2016 it was announced that commercial fishing would be banned around Pitcairn Island and across much of the rest of the overseas MCZs, meaning that the UK government would be banning commercial fishing from around one million square kilometers of the world’s oceans.

Blue Marlin

Blue marlin around Ascension Island will now be protected by its designation as a marine reserve.

The UK government followed this in January 2016 by declaring that a marine reserve would be built around Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. At over 90,000 square miles this reserve would cover almost the same area as the United Kingdom mainland and around half of it would be closed to fishing. The reserve would protect fish species such as the very large marlin which are found around the island, as well as turtles and other rare species such as frigate birds. Both the Ascension Island and Pitcairn Island reserves will be monitored by satellites and drone technology, such as the US-made Wave Gilder drone. This newly developed ocean-going drone is capable of staying out at sea for months at a time and can can track and take photographs of vessels suspected of illegal fishing, sending all of the information it gathers to a control room via satellite. Previously boats would have been needed to patrol the marine reserves, but these advances in technology have led to massive reductions in the cost of monitoring vast expanses of ocean which has been part of the reason the UK government has been able to designate the reserves.

Britain is not alone in protecting the seas and oceans around its own land and overseas territories. Australia has created a marine reserve protecting parts of the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef, Chile will protect almost a quarter of a million square miles of ocean around Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, and the tiny Republic of Palau has created the world sixth biggest marine reserve in the waters of the Western Pacific. The USA has also created the worlds largest marine reserve around their territories in the Pacific Ocean with the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument covering almost half a million square miles. However, these very large marine conservation zones have come in for some criticism. In  familiar argument some researchers have claimed that the size and scale of these zones may mean that they are not policed properly, and that the size of the MCZs is being seen as more important that the protection which is given to the creatures and environment inside.

Second Phase of UK MCZs Announced

In January 2016 the second batch of British MCZs was announced. Another twenty-three zones would be created meaning that a total of fifty MCZs would exist around the England, Wales and Northern Ireland, covering around 8000 square miles of sea (13). The new MCZs include Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds – a unique chalk reef which is thought to be Europe’s largest which is found just 200 metres off the Norfolk coast. The chalk beds feature chalk sea mounts and arches which rise up several metres from the seabed and provide the habitat for sea sponges, red seaweed and a range of fish and marine mammal species. A new species of purple sea sponge was discovered in the chalk beds in 2011 (14).

Runswick Bay

Runswick Bay on the Yorkshire coast was designated as a Marine Conservation Zone in the second tranche in 2016.

The same criticisms of the initial batch of MCZs apply as it is (at the time of writing) impossible to known exactly what protection each MCZ will receive and what damaging or destructive practices will still be allowed within the zones. The Sunday Times reported that in some MCZs large industrial trawlers would be banned but smaller “local fishing vessels would be able to operate” (15). Professor Callum Roberts, the world-renowned marine scientist stated in the same newspaper that:

“Marine Conservation Zones will not make a jot of difference if they don’t get sufficient protection. What we need is to exclude all mobile fishing gears . . . they are completely incompatible with nature conservation.” (15)

However, Professor Nick Polunin, a marine biologist at Newcastle University offered a more positive view of the protection that MCZs would receive, stating on the North East and Cumbria section of the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme:

“It hasn’t been decided on what the management regime is yet, but the suspicion is that we may end up with a regime which is quite stringent, actually, with respect to fishing. There has to be evidence around that something that someone is doing there is not damaging the environment.” (16)

List of MCZs designated in 2016: Fulmar, Farnes East, Coquet to St Mary’s, Runswick Bay, Holderness Inshore, Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds, The Swale Estuary, Dover to Deal, Dover to Folkestone, Offshore Brighton, Offshore Overfalls, Utopia (South West of Selsey Bill), The Needles, Western Channel, Mounts Bay, Land’s End, Newquay and The Gannel, Hartland Point to Tintagel, Bideford to Foreland Point, North-West of Jones Bank, Greater Haig Fras, West of Walney, Allonby Bay

Third Phase

Thérèse Coffey

Thérèse Coffey MP

The third and final tranche of MCZs will begin the consultation phase in 2017 and be announced in 2018 (17). It is unknown how many MCZs will be designated, but it is highly unlikely to be the seventy-seven which would be needed to take the total up to the 127 which were originally proposed. In September 2016 the Wildlife Trust met with Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey to submit a report which stated that more MCZs were needed around the coast of England and Wales to create an “ecologically coherent network” which would provided the required level of protection to the marine environment around the British Isles. The report called for the third tranche to establish another forty-eight MCZs, which would almost double the number which the first and second tranche created (18).


While the designation of Marine Conservation Zones is clearly a good thing for the marine environment of the UK there are in many cases questions remaining over what protections being designated a MCZ actually provides. One of the major issues is that designating and then managing MCZs are two different process, meaning that declaring an area a MCZ means very little until the detail of what will and will not be banned within the zones comes to light. The MCZ project is limited by the power of the various pressure groups which fight for their particular activity to be allowed within MCZs.

California MCZs

A sign near to Huntington Beach, California detailing the protection given to the area due to its designation as a MPA (Marine Protected Area). The text explains that in some areas no taking of any form of marine life is allowed, but in other areas taking of marine creatures for recreational or commercial purposes is permitted.

In this way MCZs could become a spectacular missed opportunity. While there is certainly scope for some forms of low impact commercial fishing to be allowed in MCZs (such as crab and lobster pots and rod and line fishing) the credibility and entire purpose of MCZs will be destroyed if destructive fishing methods such as trawling and shellfish dredging are allowed. Indeed, there is scope for conflict between anglers and the government if future MCZs ban or limit angling while allowing commercial fishing to take place. Under the current proposals there is a huge amount of leeway for all kinds of destructive practices to take place within MCZs and it is certain that the commercial fishing lobby will use all of the considerable resources at their disposal to fight to fish in as many of the MCZ areas which they can. It therefore remains to be seen whether the government has the will and desire to provide the legislation which will mean that Marine Conservation Zones do the very thing their name suggests.


1. Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas Designations –
2. Marine Protection Bids Unveiled – BBC News, 8/9/11.
3. Defra Designated 27 (Not 127) Marine Conservation Zones – Marine Reserves Coalition.
4. New Network to Protect Valuable Marine Life –
5. The UK’s Marine Reserves are Nothing but Paper Parks – The Guardian, 10/5/2012.
6. ‘Divisive’ Marine Conservation Zones to Hit Divers, Sailors and Fishermen – Western Morning News, 7/4/2012.
7. Fishing and Yachting Trump Seahorses, Rules Defra, as Marine Conservation Status Put on Hold – Daily Echo, 10/2/15.
8. Fears Marine Conservation Zones Could Wipe £60m Off County’s Economy –, 14/7/2012.
9. Twenty Seven New Marine Conservation Zones Designated – Angling Trust.
10. Backbenches Business, Fisheries Debate – Hansard,, 2/12/2010.
11. Woolf, M. Britain to Create Marine Reserves Around the World, The Sunday Times, 29/4/12.
12. Pitcairn Islands to get World’s Largest Single Marine Reserve – The Guardian, 18/3/2015.
13. Coastal zones: UK’s Protected ‘Blue Belt’ Expanded – BBC News, 17/1/2016.
14. Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds Marine Conservation Zone – The Wildlife Trust.
15. Leake, J. Protected Zones to Create ‘Blue Belt’ for Sea Life around Britain, The Sunday Times, 17/1/2016.
16. The Sunday Politics, broadcast on BBC One on 31/1/2016
17. Marine Conservation Zone Designations in England –
18. England Needs Almost Double the Number of Marine Zones to Ensure Healthy Seas – The Guardian, 30/9/2016.

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