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Marine Protected Areas – more than just lines on a map?

Government have announcement 41 new Marine Conservation Zones so Penny Nelson from WWF discusses the management tools that can be used to ensure the new sites don't just become 'paper parks'

May 2019

As I write this, Defra has just announced the third and final tranche of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs - a type of Marine Protected Area) in English and Secretary of State waters. These designations are invaluable in the fight to protect our seas – they allow species and habitats to thrive not only in these designated areas, but spilling over into surrounding waters.

Current global commitments call for 10% of coastal and marine areas to be protected by 2020 (if you’re like me and want the details see Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets & UN Development Program Sustainable Development Goal 14), and increasingly there are calls for this to reach 30% by 2030, with the UK being a vocal advocate.

This announcement of 41 new MCZs will bring the UK tantalisingly close to hitting the magic 30%, supporting the governments claim to be a “global leader in marine conservation”.

But just before I put my feet up, I have one nagging concern I can’t seem to shake: why according to the Government’s own recent assessment, are we still not seeing our seas and wildlife recover?

According to the UK’s updated Marine Strategy, only four out of 15 indicators of Good Environmental Status have been achieved, and even those four are being questioned by NGOs. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) global assessment and JNCC’s 6th report to the Convention on Biological Diversity also show a worrying decline in almost all biodiversity trends.

The answer is surely that designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on a map is only the first step to protect our seas, not the crossing of the finish line. The CBD’s Aichi targets not only call for 10% of marine waters to be designated as MPAs but that these areas should be “effectively and equitably managed”.

Effective management is not a quick or easy win, though. It needs to cover a lot of bases, like having a clear and transparent decision making process; meaningful involvement of a wide range of people – not just the ones which agree with you; clarity on who does what; proper monitoring which is linked to management; and long term funding. None of these requirements produce sexy headlines, but time and again global experience has shown that they are what counts when it comes to ocean protection.

And that’s where we come in – in partnership with Sky Ocean Rescue, WWF’s UK SEAS project has developed The Compass – a robust holistic tool that allows us to assess how effectively an MPA is being managed. It identifies what’s working well, and where we can focus energy on making improvements. We’ve already trialled this on the MPAs around North Devon, and next want to trial it in the seas around the Outer Hebrides.

Today’s announcement is a clear opportunity for the UK to become a global leader. But to secure the buy in and deliver the change our marine environment so desperately needs we need leadership from UK Governments’ in setting an ambitious management agenda first. WWF will be working with Environment Links UK to advocate for more effective management of MPAs through the UK Marine Strategy consultation. Only then can we secure a future where people and nature thrive.

Penny Nelson, Marine Policy Officer, WWF UK.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.