Watershed in battle to save our seas

Today the government has announced an important new wave of marine protection. It marks the culmination of decades of campaigning by The Wildlife Trusts, our volunteers, supporters and members. A very big thank you to the hundreds of thousands of you that helped make history!

When I began my career in marine conservation thirty years ago there were only three Marine Nature Reserves in the whole of the UK and a handful of Voluntary Marine Conservation Areas. Our seas were under tremendous pressure from over-fishing, oil exploration and pollution. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals were preventing dog whelks from breeding, there was an epidemic of seal deaths in the North Sea and fish were being found covered in sores and lesions.

Today’s government announcement of 41 new Marine Conservation Zones marks a highly significant moment in the long hard struggle to get the legislation and political will to deliver an ecologically coherent network of protected areas at sea. This network will ultimately allow our small corner of the blue planet to recover. It has not been easy, however. Many of those with vested interests have been aggressively against our ambitions to take better care of our seas and end to over-fishing.

At the beginning of this voyage we had to demonstrate that we had a marine environment that was worth protecting.

We surveyed the myriad sea-bed types and multitude of beauties, curiosities and downright breath-taking marine wildlife around our shores – and talked to anyone who’d listen about the wonders of our seas. Very few people realised that we have corals, let alone the world’s second-largest shark patrolling our waters eating vast amounts of the smallest of the animals in our seas, the plankton. There were stories to tell of fish that change sex, wrasse that build nests and ocean quahogs that can live for as long as 500 years.

As we gathered public support to protect the wonders of our marine environment, we were also able to reveal the shocking amount of damage we observed. Cod nearly became commercially extinct in the North Sea and hundreds of dolphins were being washed-up dead on our shores. In the 1980s and 90s horse mussel communities were destroyed in one of our few marine nature reserves by dredging for queenies. In many other sites we were seeing the devastating effect of scallop-dredging on sea fans, sunset corals and other fragile species. Something had to be done. It was time for a new approach.

In 2002 we called for a marine bill which would allow us to manage and protect our marine environment.  The legislation at that time was out-dated, not fit-for-purpose and, most importantly, prevented us designating marine protected areas and managing our inshore fisheries sustainably. Then we rallied our members and supporters – a staggering 250,000 people signed silver scales during our Petition Fish campaign which we packed into boxes and took to Westminster.

Simon King OBE signing a scale with Joan Edwards

Simon King OBE signing a scale with Joan Edwards ©Tom Marshall

We were all thrilled when, in 2009, the Marine Act was passed which gave us the legal tools to designate a network of protected areas and the power to ensure that the wider seas were managed in the future in a sustainable way.

In the following years, a million people took part in a process to identify where these zones should be located and what they should protect. Ten years on, I am over the moon that the third phase of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) have been announced by the government today. This historic move will help protect the seas around our shores and follows on from previous announcements of 50 MCZs (in 2013 and 2016) bringing the total to 91. It is the third of three phases promised by the Government in order to fulfil the remit of the Marine and Coastal Access Act.

It marks a turning point for the future of our seas. A fitting testament to the huge amount of effort put into marine campaigning by so many, and a recognition that people who care about the hidden depths, the submerged landscapes, the last truly wild place in the UK – have been listened to.

The 41 new MCZs are special places and include cold water corals, forests of sea fans, rocky canyons and sandbanks – an astonishingly varied range of submerged landscapes and habitats which support the stunning diversity of marine life found in the UK.  They include Bembridge MCZ which is very unusual because it is home to both species of native seahorse, Solway Firth MCZ whose sand banks are resting places for seals, and Holderness Offshore MCZ which is important home for growing crabs and lobsters.  All these zones will contribute towards a network of areas which is urgently needed to ensure a healthy future for our seas. 

But, and it’s a significant but, while it’s great that 41 new MCZs are being designated, it’s not the end of the story.

We must now focus on ensuring that all our Marine Protected Areas (Marine Conservation Zones and Special Areas of Conservation*) are managed effectively – and the most damaging activities must be removed from these areas to allow our amazing marine environment to recover. We don’t know exactly what recovery will look like, but we do know that when damaging activities are removed from areas such as Lyme Bay, the sea bed’s plants and animals showed incredible resilience; even slow growing and sensitive species such as sea fans and ross corals can reappear after just a few years.

There’s a lot to consider. Scallop dredging and bottom-towed gear needs to be removed from most of our protected areas and we have to start thinking about monitoring these sites so we can measure natural recovery.  Just imagine the damage to a flowerbed if you pulled a weighty ten-foot-wide rake over it! That’s exactly what a scallop dredge does to the sea-bed destroying habitats and species on its journey to capture scallops.

The sea-bed is a vital national treasure and resource, and it’s important to remember that healthy, thriving marine habitats are more resilient to the effects of climate change and are able to absorb more carbon dioxide, one of the major contributors to climate change.  So, the job isn’t finished yet – we need to ensure our Marine Protected Areas are well-managed and I believe The Wildlife Trusts have a unique role in monitoring these sites in future. We will be revealing more about this later in the summer during National Marine Week.

Today, though, is a day to celebrate! Many of us have waited for a very long time for this moment – and this fabulous network of protected areas at sea would never have happened without the support of our volunteers and members who signed our petitions, marched on Parliament, became ‘Friends of Marine Conservation Zones,’ and braved the elements to survey our beaches and shallow seas over the past 30 years. Very many thanks to every one of you!

Joan Edwards at Flamborough Cliffs Nature Reserve

Joan Edwards trained as a marine biologist at Bangor University and joined The Wildlife Trusts as their first marine conservation officer in 1987. She was the first conservation member of a Sea Fisheries Committee in 1992. Joan was made aware of the damage to Lyme Bay reefs by local fisherman in 1994 and was behind the government’s landmark announcement of the Lyme Bay protected area in 2007. She was instrumental in the development of the Marine and Coastal Access Act and led the NGOs’ collective campaign to get it through parliament. More recently Joan has taken part in the identification of the network of Marine Conservation Zones in English waters.

*Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are a site of European importance and are designated under the Birds and Habitats Directive