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 with a similar (but separate) network of protected areas around the other devolved nations of the UK (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 impact 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 were 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).
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.
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 have a minimal impact within the MCZ. It was therefore apparent that rather than offering blanket protection MCZs would instead be designed to protect specific aspects of the marine environment in specific areas, and there would be considerable flexibility for Defra and the UK government to allow activities to take place inside MCZs.
‘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.
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 an 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)
As of 2018 angling has not been banned within any Marine Conservation Zone designated under this process in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
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 ten million square kilometres (four million sq. 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.
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 are most famous for being the landing site of the mutineers from HMS Bounty in the late 1700s. This reserve would cover over 828,800 square kilometres (320,00 sq. miles) of ocean and protect the eighty species of fish which are found around the islands such as groupers, 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 kilometres (386,000 sq. miles) of the world’s oceans.
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 233,000 square miles (90,000 sq. 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 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 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq. 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 world’s largest marine reserve around its territories in the Pacific Ocean with the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument covering almost 1.3 million square kilometres (500,000 sq. miles). However, these very large marine conservation zones have come in for some criticism. In a 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 than the protection which is given to the creatures and environment inside.
In 2016 it was announced that after five years of negotiations a huge arctic marine reserve would be created in the Ross Sea to the west of the Antarctic. The zone will cover over one million square kilometres (386,000 sq. miles) of ocean, making it the same size as the landmass of France and Spain combined. The creation of the zone is significant as it is the first zone to be designated in international waters (i.e. those that do not belong to any one country) and has required the agreement of twenty-four separate nations plus the European Union. While the creation of the zone is good news there is concern that the agreement is only valid for thirty-five years, and will need to bee renegotiated after this period.
The UK government appears to be continuing with its commitment to press for more international co-operation to protect international waters. In September 2018 Environment Secretary Michael Gove stated that “global action” should be taken to protect one-third of the world’s seas and oceans by 2030. This would go much further than the UN plan to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020.
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 England, Wales and Northern Ireland, covering around 20,700 square kilometres (8,000 sq. 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 seamounts 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).
The same criticisms of the initial batch of MCZs apply as it is (at the time of writing) impossible to know 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)
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
The third and final tranche of MCZs began the consultation phase in 2017. Organisations such as the Wildlife Trust called for another forty-eight MCZs to be established as they said this number was necessary to create an “ecologically coherent network” which would provide the required level of protection to the marine environment around the British Isles (17). On 8th June (to coincide with World Oceans Day) it was announced by the Environment Secretary Michael Gove that forty-one new MCZs would be created around the British Isles. He also said that a new environment watchdog “with teeth and enforcement powers” would be set up to ensure that the new zones were protected, and stressed that this was a “permanent commitment” which had cross-party political support (18). The third tranche of MCZs is set to cover 11,600 square kilometres (4,500 sq. miles), bringing the total area protected around the UK to over 31,000 square kilometres (12,000 sq. miles).
In June 2019 it was announced that there would be a large expansion to the UK’s MCZs, with forty-one new zones being announced. This would cover 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 sq. miles), the equivalent to an area eight times the size of Greater London. Michael Gove said that the new zones would “safeguard precious and diverse sea life for generations to come” (19).
In October 2019 the lack of enforcement of Britain’s MCZ was underlined when the super-trawler FV Margiris (the second largest fishing vessel in the world which can catch 250 tons of fish per day) was operating in the English Channel. Data gathered by Greenpeace showed that the vessel had been fishing in Offshore Overfalls and area off the south-east coast of the Isle of Wight which had been designated as an MCZ in 2016. Greenpeace said that the vessel had spent significant time fishing in the zone with nothing apparently being done to stop it (20).
The following year an investigation by Greenpeace found that the issue of large-scale commercial fishing taking place in zones which were supposed to offer marine protection was much more widespread than initially realised. An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that supertrawlers (those over 100 metres in length) had spent over 3,000 hours fishing in designated offshore protected zones around the UK. In total twenty-five supertrawlers, which included the four largest in the world, had fished in thirty-nine UK marine protected zones in 2019 (21). Such incidents add weight to criticisms of Britain’s marine protected zones being nothing more than ‘paper parks’, although due to the lack of meaningful regulations governing the zones the supertrawlers were not breaking any rules or laws by fishing in the protected areas.
The government has been receptive to the claims that the original plans for MCZs were too weak and did not offer sufficient protection for the marine environment. A review commissioned by Michael Gove when he was Environment Secretary reported its findings in June 2020 and stated that a new series of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) should be established (22). These would ban all activities which were extractive or destructive to the marine environment, meaning that all forms of commercial fishing would be banned, along with any other activities which could cause damage such as seabed drilling or mining (22). While the measures would end criticism over such areas only being paper parks there was concern in the angling community that recreational rod and line fishing could be classed as being as damaging to the marine environment as seabed dredging or intensive trawling and could therefore also be prohibited in the new HPMAs. Recreational fishing organisations such as the Angling Trust have launched campaigns to highlight the fact that angling is a low-impact activity and should not be “lumped … in with destructive practices such as trawling, dredging and drilling” (23).
The growing support for MCZs and greater protection of the marine environment was highlighted in 2020 when a YouGov poll commissioned by Greenpeace found that four out of five people backed supertrawlers from being banned from operating in marine protected areas and many people wanting to see them prohibited from operating in UK waters altogether (24). There is now much more public support for strong and effective protection of the marine environment, and calls from the commercial fishing lobby that dredging and trawling should be allowed within protected zones are going to be much harder to justify. This has been reflected in the media, with stories about the lack of protection provided by MCZs now regularly making national headlines. This could be seen in December 2020 when it was reported that Oceana (the world’s largest marine conservation charity) had found that the UK’s protected marine areas were among the most exploited in Europe with damaging activities such as trawling, dredging and seabed drilling still allowed in many of them and some still being open to twelve different damaging human activities (25).
The criticisms of the weak protection offered by MCZs seem to be having some impact on government policy. In February 2021 the Marine Management Organisation said that it was going to completely ban seabed trawling in the Dogger Bank and South Dorset MCZs. While both areas had been given protected status damaging commercial fishing was still permitted within both of them. Environmental groups such as Blue Marine foundation welcomed the move with its Chief Executive Charles Clover stating that it showed that the government had “conceded that damaging fishing has been going on illegally in protected areas” (26) and Professor Callum Roberts said:
“New protection could lead to the beginnings of a recovery of a megafauna that used to thrive on the bank in astonishing densities: halibut, flapper skate, blue skate, longnose skate, angel sharks, turbot, brill, wolffish, conger eels, cod” (26).
The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations was less happy with the ban on trawling within the two areas. A spokesman from the organisation was quoted by BBC News as saying that the measures took “sledgehammer to fishing” and went on to say “This punishing reversal comes on the back of the government’s failure to deliver on fishing in the Brexit negotiations, and damaging delays in the export of fish and shellfish” (26).
In a further development activist environmental groups warned the government that they would take direct action to stop trawling and other forms of destructive commercial fishing from taking place if they felt laws and regulations to stop such fishing were insufficient. In the autumn of 2020 Greenpeace dropped huge boulders around the dogger bank in an attempt to stop trawlers operating there. In February 2021 they did the same in an area off the south coast of England known as Offshore Brighton. The area had been designated as an MCZ but was still subjected to trawling, leading Greenpeace to take its own action. Writing in the Guardian celebrity chef and sustainable fishing campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said:
“Boulder placements will stop bottom trawlers from ploughing up this valuable seabed habitat with their heavy fishing gear. This action should put almost one-fifth of Offshore Brighton off-limits to these destructive vessels. I support this action precisely because it is action – to protect our marine life in a pragmatic and effective way – as opposed to the woeful inaction we have seen from our government so far” (27).
Much has changed since the government began the first consultation period for MCZs in 2009 and designated the first batch of zones in 2013. The health of the world’s seas and oceans is now much higher up the political and public agenda now than it was back then, with the issue of ocean plastic pollution, in particular, has brought much attention and scrutiny to the way we look after the marine environment and a corresponding increase in support for MCZs which offer proper protection for the UK’s marine environment and too many questions remain over what protections being designated an MCZ actually provides. Under initial plans, there was (and still is) 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 remains to be seen if Highly Protected Marine Areas will be established, and whether or not they will be able to afford the clear and decisive protection which the marine environment needs.
This article will continue to be updated as more news of the MCZs around the UK emerges.
1. Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas Designations – gov.scot.
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 – gov.uk., 21/11/2013.
5. Monbiot, G. 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 – walesonline.co.uk, 14/7/2012.
9. Twenty Seven New Marine Conservation Zones Designated – Angling Trust [Link no longer active].
10. Backbenches Business, Fisheries Debate – Hansard, publications.parliament.uk, 2/12/2010.
11. Woolf, M. Britain to Create Marine Reserves Around the World, The Sunday Times, 29/4/12.
12. Vaughan, A. 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. Aldred, J. England Needs Almost Double the Number of Marine Zones to Ensure Healthy Seas, The Guardian, 30/9/2016.
18. UK’s Marine Conservation Zones to be Expanded – ITV News, 8/6/2020.
19. Barkham, P. Large Expansion to ‘Blue Belt’ of UK’s Protected Marine Areas Announced, The Guardian, 31/5/2019.
20. Weston, K. European Super Trawler Sparks Fury After Entering UK Conservation Zone, The Express, 31/10/19.
21. Carrington, D. Supertrawlers ‘Making a Mockery’ of UK’s Protected Seas, The Guardian, 11/6/20.
22. Complete Fishing Bans Would See UK Become ‘World Leader’ in How We Protect Our Seas – Sky News, 8/6/2020.
23. Angling Trust Calls on Sea Anglers to Support Campaign for Changed to the HMPA Review – Angling Trust [Link no longer active].
24. Four in Five Want Supertrawlers Banned From Marine Protected Areas, Poll Shows – ITV News, 18/6/2020.
25. Cuff, M. UK’s Protected Waters Among Worst in Europe for Industrial Fishing, Drilling and Dredging, Charity Says, i Newspaper, 14/12/2020.
26. Bottom Trawling Ban for Key UK Fishing Sites – BBC News, 1/2/2021.
27. Fearnley-Whittingstall, H. If the UK Government Won’t Stop Industrial Fishing from Destroying Our Oceans, Activists Will, The Guardian, 26/2/2021.
Note: This article was last updated in early 2021. Developments that have happened since that date will not be reflected in this article.