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“Simon says” – Marine Protected Features

November 3, 2016

undelute-ray-peter-tinsley-2In this blog at the beginning of each month I hope to be giving some topical insights into what goes on behind the scenes in conservation and environment.  I will try and be thought-provoking and sometimes even controversial, but I hope not divisive.  The views expressed here are not necessarily the policy of DWT, but are my own thoughts laid out for you to judge – for better or worse.  Please pass this blog on to your networks if you found it interesting.

Marine Protected Features

I have been an oceanographer / marine biologist for all my career and so I constantly strive to ensure that marine conservation is not the poor cousin to the work we do on land.  There is however no getting over the fact that humans are, with a few notable exceptions like Jacques Cousteau and Duncan Goodhew, a terrestrial species, so we have to work that much harder to raise the profile of the importance of the massive range of ecosystems that cover two thirds of our planet and are vital to our very survival.

Whilst marine conservation and management has its particular challenges, such as a lack of ownership and the famous ‘tragedy of the commons’, we salty types like to think we are every bit as advanced in our thinking as those poor individuals constrained to working on land.  The subject of my blog this month has both positive and negative elements to it, and I leave you to judge which prevail.  As an optimist I side very much on the positive side of the great progress made.

Decades ago in response to the decline of some notable species, plans were set up for their protection and recovery.  These plans were targeted at the species of concern, often to the exclusion of other species.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on the nature of the plan and the species.  The problem with such a focussed approach is that all life coexists in ecosystems within which there is a myriad of inter-relationships.  Hence a change in one element of the system can cause unexpected consequences elsewhere.  A good example of this is the damage caused to bees by neonicotinoids used to control aphids.  Another example is that over £300 million has been raised for tiger conservation because people generously donate to iconic species rather than less sexy ecosystem processes.  It is though the latter which need to be addressed to protect tigers, such as habitat destruction, watershed management and prey abundance.  As Dorset based conservationist Mark Carwardine says, there is a place for both approaches.  Certainly though, targeting on just one species or element of the ecosystem has considerable limitations.

Moving then back offshore, this lesson does not appear to have been learnt by national marine legislators – and it drives me up the wall.  The story goes like this.  The EU Habitats Directive (long may it live in a post-Brexit world), seeks to conserve key rare, threatened or endemic plants and animals.  Good start.  Over 200 habitat types were also identified for protection.  Better still – sounds promising.  At sea a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) known as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) were identified and designated by member States across Europe.  These SACs were augmented by a national network of MPAs called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) under UK law designed to protect a representative range of nationally important features and provide an ecologically coherent network. An aside here is that I don’t know anyone brave enough to suggest what an ecologically coherent network actually looks like.

This all sounds wonderful and indeed it is and is long overdue.  Whilst the areas set up to protect the features in the SACs and MCZs are way less than the 40% of sea area recommended by Prof Callum Roberts, they are adding up to a significant area of protection.  Dorset in particular appears to be leading the way both in designation and regulation.  The government and our fabulous local regulator the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (SIFCA) should be proud of that as it will help restore the health of the sea and increase productivity for fishermen.  Now that we are at the stage of actually regulating for their protection however, usually by local fisheries bylaws, comes the regression to a bygone age of conservation.  In order to avoid legal challenge, which may or may not be successful, by groups opposed to MPAs, the locally written bylaws can only protect the features (species or habitat) in the MPA not the whole MPA itself.  Bonkers.  The local regulators, who do their best to balance conservation and commercial interests, have their hands tied by national legislation.

There are several consequences of this bizarre step.  Firstly, it means that the size of the protected areas, designed and dimensioned to form a coherent network, is very much smaller than envisaged and may well not be sufficiently large.  Secondly, the risk of damage by activities the bylaws are set up to limit, such as bottom trawling or aggregate dredging, is far greater as they will be allowed within the MPA right up to the feature.  Thirdly, an ecosystem comprises a range of habitats and so protecting just one is a risky strategy.  In the Great Barrier Reef, research showed that the featureless sandy areas between reefs were vital for the productivity of the coral reefs themselves.

This feature-based approach at sea is years behind conservation thinking.  We must get the government advisors like JNCC to recommend the changes in law to protect our valiant local regulators and move to a more ecosystem-based approach, especially in such a fluid, high energy environment as the sea, by protecting and enforcing good management in the whole of the MPA.  If not we will need more MPAs and a greater area under protection.  Far better to protect not just the species or feature, but the function and inter-relationships ecology relies on.  We’ve made great progress of late, and the network we have, though imperfect, will restore our degraded seas, but with just a little more thought and leadership at a national level we could end up with a system of MPAs that has the best possible chance of sustainably managed seas.

Image:  Undulate ray in Dorset © Peter Tinsley


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