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Expanded Blue Belt welcomed - But Government must champion its protection

Conservation and environment groups welcome the new Marine Conservation Zones but warn they will be little more than 'paper parks' without effective management and well-resourced enforcement

31 May 2019

The conservation sector welcomes the announcement by Defra today of 41 new Marine Conservation Zones. Nearly doubling[1] the number of conservation zones in English and Secretary of State Waters[2] is a big step forward, but 13 charities, co-ordinated by Wildlife and Countryside Link, are warning that without effective management and well-resourced enforcement these sites will be little more than ‘paper parks’ and sea life will continue to decline.

Just this month the Environmental Audit Committee slammed the lack of protection for these areas as part of its Sustainable Seas report – outlining concerns that “Government is doing little more than putting lines on a map’ with very few restrictions on harmful activities such as pulse fishing in many protected areas.[3] This report coincided with the UN IPBES biodiversity report which showed the alarming declines in nature and the huge impact of human activities on the biodiversity of marine ecosystems[4].

Earlier this month Defra announced its failure to achieve healthy seas through the UK Marine Strategy, managing to meet just 4 of the 15 targets[5]. The collective UK Governments’ admission that our oceans are in poor health is a wake-up call; we must grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity to turn the tide on biodiversity loss. The expanded network of Marine Protected Areas goes some way to safeguarding our seas from further harm but proper management and Government collaboration will also be key. Some of the new sites proposed cover areas in the Irish Sea but despite commitments, Scottish Government have delayed a public consultation for further MPA sites in Scottish waters for 4 years and Wales is yet to publicly announce its own plans for MCZs[6].

Chris Tuckett, Director of Programmes at Marine Conservation Society, and Chair of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Marine Group, said: ‘A bigger Blue Belt for England is essential and much to be welcomed, but unless these areas are ‘policed’ effectively they won’t turn the tide for our sea life. These sites will be protected in name only, and our wildlife will continue to decline, unless the Treasury commits to funds to keep them safe.’

Sarah Denman, UK Environment Lawyer at ClientEarth, said: ‘The Government must make sure it is not creating paper parks, with words that wash away when it comes to real protection for our ocean. The key threat to these sites is unsustainable fishing that continues to deplete at-risk species. Management must be effective in preventing damaging practices taking place in these areas; otherwise, our ocean’s future will continue to be fished away.’

Sonja Eisfeld-Pierantonio, Policy officer at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said: ‘Not only do we need to police the Blue Belt we have, we need to broaden protection to areas where wide-roaming species, such as whales, dolphins and porpoises are at risk. This should be a key aim for the Government as it is failing to meet its Marine Strategy targets for these vulnerable species.’

Alec Taylor, Head of Marine Policy at WWF, said:
“We welcome the designation of these new areas, which are critical in creating a network of sites protecting our precious marine wildlife - but at the moment they’re just empty words on a page. It’s great that the UK is nearing 30% coverage of its waters protected by such areas, but in reality they are very poorly monitored and we have little evidence that wildlife is benefitting. If we’re going to take effective steps to save our seas, we need proper management of activities within the boundaries of all MPAs and strict enforcement of our laws designed to safeguard the UK’s marine environments for nature and people.”

Joan Edwards, Director of Living Seas at The Wildlife Trusts, says: 'It’s fantastic news that now we have 41 Marine Conservation Zones – they will form a vital series of underwater habitats which can be nursed back to health. We’ve been calling for the Government to give real protection to a network of diverse sea-bed landscapes since 2009 and over 22,000 people joined The Wildlife Trusts call for better protection of our seas during last summer’s consultation. Huge thanks to everyone who has supported this change! Now we need to see good management of these special places to stop damaging activities such as beam-trawling or dredging for scallops and langoustines which harm fragile marine wildlife.'

UK Governments have already failed to meet legal requirements under The Marine Strategy Regulations (2010) to achieve Good Environmental Status for UK seas by 2020.[3] Now, conservation charities are issuing a three-point challenge to Government to Seas Our Future and protect our Blue Belt, if they are serious about achieving healthy seas. The NGOs are calling on the Government to:

  • Ensure effective management is put in place by the end of 2019 to ensure the sites don’t become ‘paper parks’ – protected on paper but with business as usual in reality. This is a concern shared by the cross-party Environment Audit Committee[3].
  • Commit to regular monitoring of Marine Protected Areas to better understand trends and ensure these areas are truly being protected and enhanced, and increase enforcement in these areas to prevent harmful fishing practices in ‘protected’ zones
  • Provide ring-fenced monitoring and enforcement funds for Marine Protected Areas from central Government rather than relying on over-stretched public bodies to deliver funding


Notes to editors:

Organisations supporting these calls include: Client Earth, Institute of Fisheries Management, Marine Conservation Society, MARINElife, Northern Ireland Environment Link, ORCA, RSPB, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Wildlife and Countryside Link, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Wildlife Trusts, WWF UK, Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

  1. The 41 new sites are in addition to 50 existing Marine Conservation Zones – bringing the total to 91 sites.
  2. Secretary of State Waters refers to English territorial waters and UK offshore waters around England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  3. The full EAC sustainable seas report is here Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Boyd, was quoted by the committee in section 5 of their report, stating: ‘What I would say we should do a lot better is getting out and looking at the areas we have already protected to understand whether they are really having the effects that we hope they will have. At the moment I am not sure that we have that information. In fact, I know we do not have that information.’
  4. IPBES 2019 Report: ‘Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’
  5. See UK Marine Strategy Consultation Part One, p15
  6. The most recent MCZ designations for Northern Ireland were in 2016. In 2016/17 the proportion of Northern Ireland’s marine area under favourable management was only 4.48%, highlighting the need to continue progressing the implementation of management plans. Scotland has welcomed the addition of Loch Carron as a permanent designation in the MPA network but, despite commitments, are still awaiting public consultation on further MPAs for the protection of mobile species and other key additions, such as the proposed Deep Sea Marine Reserve.


  • The UK’s resident Orca population is at high risk of extinction, down to just eight members with no calves for 20 years. Half of the world’s Orca populations are likely to be wiped out in the next 30-50 years by chemical pollutants (polychlorinated biphenyls - PCBs) in our oceans.
  • Seabird populations are in decline across the UK falling by 22% in the last 40 years, with the Kittiwake down by 60% UK wide, failing recovery targets set over 6 years ago . The UK hosts internationally important numbers of seabirds (8 million), and is globally important for a number of seabird species. The UK Government has promised to act to reverse this decline (OSPAR 2017)
  • By 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
  • Around 12 million tonnes of plastics end up in the ocean each year (Eunomia)
  • Plastic bottles make up almost a fifth of non-fishing plastic debris in the oceans (source).

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