The benefits of Marine Conservation Zones

The benefits of Marine Conservation Zones

Discover why we're calling on the Government to create 41 new Marine Conservation Zones in English seas.

The UK has a long and beautiful coastline, miles of beaches, cliffs and mudflats bordering seas full of weird and wonderful creatures. But despite our close connection to the sea, and the fact that it’s home to half of all our wildlife, we have been neglecting it.

Until recently, we had no way of protecting nationally important marine sites in England and Wales, and only 0.001% of our seabed was protected! That all changed in 2009, when the Marine and Coastal Access Act was passed, paving the way for a new type of protected area in English seas – Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs).

The first 27 were created in 2013, with another 23 added in 2016, taking the current total to 50. This is a great start, but to truly look after our seas we need a complete network of protected areas around the UK, covering examples of every kind of habitat and threatened species. The Government are currently consulting on a third wave of MCZs (learn more here), but let’s take a look at how they actually work.

Marine Conservation Zones protect the special features of a site from certain damaging activities. Because each MCZ is unique, they all have to be managed in a different way. Development is licenced by Government, but fishing is a little more complicated, with responsibility for management depending on how far the MCZ is from land.

Within 6 miles, they are the responsibility of local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs), from 6-12 miles they are under the eye of the Marine Management Organisation, and beyond that MCZs are managed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The special features of each MCZ are mapped out, and the potential effects of any damaging activities (such as dredging or trawling) are assessed. If any activity is found to pose a significant risk to the special features of a site, that activity will not be allowed to take place.

Thanks to this approach, there are large areas of Marine Conservation Zones in English seas where bottom trawling is banned, protecting the fragile community of life found on the sea floor, including delicate sea fans and burrowing anemones. One example is the Manacles MCZ, on the southern coast of Cornwall.

Covering a series of rocky outcrops, this MCZ was created in 2013 to protect a number of seabed features. These include the threatened spiny lobster, the bizarre stalked jellyfish and delicate beds of maerl – a type of hard seaweed that forms living reefs, providing a home for many other species. Once the Manacles became an MCZ, the Cornwall IFCA introduced a new byelaw, prohibiting the use of bottom towed fishing gear within the area, protecting these fragile and threatened features.

Another example is Dorset’s Chesil Beach and Stannis Ledges MCZ, where a Southern IFCA byelaw prohibits bottom towed fishing gear from operating over reefs where pink sea fans are found. These colourful corals come in beautiful shades of pink, orange or white, but are easily smashed by fishing gear.

Spiny lobster

Spiny lobster ©Dominic Flint

The evidence shows that protecting these special features like this can allow the wildlife to recover and thrive. This is demonstrated by the story of Lyme Bay on the south coast. Home to unique and very fragile reefs, the wildlife of Lyme Bay was being heavily damaged by scallop dredging. After a long campaign and consultation, the area was declared off limits for dredging.

Within two years the wildlife began to recover. Sea fans and sponges returned, covering the sea floor in colour. Species thought to live only on reefs began to grow between cobbles and pebbles, able to thrive on this habitat once the pressure of dredging was removed. Without the damaging activity, life began to recover.

Completing a network of protected areas is essential for the future of our seas. By protecting as many types of habitat and species as possible, we give our seas the greatest chance of recovery. The 41 new Marine Conservation Zones currently under consultation will take us a huge step closer to this vision, and you can help secure them – send a Wave of Support today to ask the Government to protect each and every one of these special areas of our seas.

Little cuttlefish

Little cuttlefish ©

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