Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


Conservation of marine areas

218. There is growing interest in monitoring and protecting marine biodiversity and growing pressure on the Government, arising from various international commitments as well as from lobbying by non-governmental organisations, to establish marine protected areas. At present there is a complex variety of designations which may be applied to marine areas to provide them with a measure of protection. For example, the terms of reference of this inquiry refer to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). We note, however, there are no entirely marine SSSIs in England or Wales and the current SSSI system does not extend below the low water line. The UK also has policy commitments to identify areas for special protection under the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Johannesburg Declaration (2002), regional seas conventions, such as OSPAR, and EU regulations such as the Habitats and Birds Directive. These agreements set different standards and timetables: the Johannesburg Declaration requires the establishment of a network of marine protected areas by 2012, while the EU directive requires the establishment of marine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). Finally, there is a power under the home-grown Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to designate sites as marine nature reserves (MNRs).

219. These attempts to designate marine nature reserves and marine special areas of conservation have been largely unsuccessful. Just 1.8m hectares or 2.2% of UK waters have been designated under such measures. As yet no entirely marine sites have been designated as SACs, although there are a number with marine habitats or species, and there are only two MNRs in England and Wales, at Lundy and Skomer. In Scotland the Darwin Mounds has also been protected because of its unique cold water coral habitat. This protection followed a landmark High Court ruling in 1999 as a result of litigation between a consortium of NGOs (including Greenpeace and WWF) and the British Government and subsequently a further case where the European Commission took the Government to court for inter alia not having properly implemented its regulations in the offshore zone. The paucity of designated sites is despite the emphasis in the Johannesburg Declaration, for example, on establishing a network, rather than individual sites: MPAs in isolation are unlikely to bring major benefits for mobile species or to allow species and habitats to move when the climate changes significantly.

220. Evidence to us objected that site designation is too slow, that attempts to identify candidate sites have failed due to the withdrawal of funding from Defra and more generally that there is a lack of data to underpin the sites.[450] This data includes information on biodiversity but also, according to NERC, basic detailed national seabed maps based on modern techniques.[451] NERC saw this as "a major hindrance to sustainable development of our UK marine resources".[452] Other examples of lack of knowledge included information on cold water corals such as found in the protected Darwin Mounds site, coastal supratidal (lichens) and subtidal (algal) zones and overall knowledge of species.[453] The RSPB believed that there are data gaps "on both a spatial and a temporal scale for many species and habitats in UK waters" and also in knowledge of "the location and status of mobile marine species such as cetaceans and seabirds".[454]

221. Witnesses to the inquiry argued that these data gaps were sufficient to undermine the whole approach towards designating and protecting sites. The Biosciences Federation were concerned about the paucity of "information on connectivity and ecological functioning of the biotas of particular reserves … to the extent that it is not yet clear whether the current conservation designations are likely to have any useful impact in the longer term,"[455] while the JNCC complained that "systematic surveillance of marine biodiversity in UK continental shelf waters is currently very poorly developed … with the result that it is currently very difficult to assess the status of, and trends in, marine biodiversity or to give a quantitative assessment of the impact of human activities on this".[456] There is also a lack of knowledge with regard to the special nature of marine environments as opposed to terrestrial protected zones. The WWF-UK pointed out that research is needed to allow marine protected sites to be flexible as marine features are likely to move.[457] These gaps in knowledge make it difficult to define suitable sites for protection and to monitor the state of the environment within those sites once designated.

222. There is also a view that part of the failure to establish marine SSSIs in the recent past might be owing to the "acute" fragmentation of research responsibilities in this areas between various conservation bodies, fisheries laboratories and NERC.[458] To combat this difficulty in future, Natural England stresses the importance of multidisciplinary partnerships to underpin the conservation of marine biodiversity.[459] This is supported by the RSPB's call for "multi-disciplinary work to address, coherently and strategically, the monitoring of seabird populations, climate change, oceanography, plankton community dynamics, fish stocks and commercial fisheries".[460]

223. In addition, there is major uncertainty regarding the science underpinning MPAs. This is often based on modelling because of the lack of designated sites from which to gather necessary empirical evidence. This is a chicken and egg situation that can only be overcome by designating a number of meaningful full-scale pilot sites from which suitable evidence can be gathered. In many senses this is equivalent to the creation of a large experimental facility that will provide the basis for excellent science of huge significance for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. This is a matter of urgency given the failure of current resources to protect the marine environment. We urge the Government to establish a number of full-scale pilot sites immediately, ahead of the Bill, in order to gather the evidence necessary to develop the science needed to underpin MPAs and to enable the UK to become a leader in conservation science.

The Marine Bill

224. The looming deadlines for existing commitments and forthcoming legislation such as the European Commission's proposals for "eco-system based spatial planning" as outlined in its Green Paper Towards a future Maritime Policy for the Union: A European vision for the oceans and seas and the EU draft Marine Directive have focussed renewed attention on the Government's plans to designate areas for conservation measures. In March 2007 Defra published a consultation document, A Sea Change: A Marine Bill White Paper, which contained proposals to introduce:

The fifth issue of the Marine Bill newsletter published at the same time indicated that the creation of the new MPAs was intended to "introduce new tools for the conservation of marine wildlife to help halt the deterioration of biodiversity and promote recovery where practicable, to support healthy, functioning and resilient ecosystems, and provide mechanisms that can deliver current and future European and international conservation obligations."[461] The proposals include "new powers to designate Marine Conservation Zones using a flexible, objective-based site mechanism, new by-law-making powers to control currently unregulated damaging activities, and improved enforcement measures".

225. These developments have generally been welcomed by witnesses to this inquiry, including the conservation groups, but also the science community. PML, for example, told us that "Some form of very serious protection of an appropriate mosaic of protected areas is the minimum requirement of these vital, yet hugely sensitive, areas. It is also crucial to understand that these areas provide a huge and previously unquantified economic benefit to the UK amounting to many £billions in goods and services".[462] However, there are serious concerns about the feasibility of the current plans. Many of these are generic to the discussion on the availability of data to support selection and monitoring of the sites, as detailed above, but there are also new concerns, specific to the Marine Bill, as to the purpose of the MPAs and the place of science within Defra's new policy.


226. Defra states that the aim of the Marine Bill is to "help develop and implement the necessary regulation and planning regime for the sustainable use and protection of our seas, coasts, estuaries and marine wildlife".[463] Defra wants to "conserve enough rare, threatened and representative species and habitats to maintain and improve biodiversity and ecosystems whilst covering as small an area as possible".[464] The JNCC, responsible for identifying SACs and SPAs beyond 12 nautical miles from the coast,[465] saw MPAs as providing "a wide range of services, including to biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, the sustainable use of natural resources, and as a resource for education, training and research", adding that "Their value to both conservation and science is increased when they are strictly protected".[466] It is looking for "a representative sample of protected areas of the different habitat types which have had relatively little disturbance".[467] Dr Tew of Natural England suggested that not all of the MPAs needed to provide the whole range of benefits. He explained that "We are also alive to different possible mechanisms where you have highly protected marine reserves which are really left to recover in a completely pristine state and MPAs where they are of a variety of sustainable uses. The concept that MPAs are exclusively just for nature conservation is an old-fashioned one and the conservation community is very alive to the win-wins".[468]

227. The overwhelming emphasis on conservation and environmental protection has worried some in the science community. NOCS warned that "MPAs might inhibit the undertaking of research in these sites, perhaps by prohibiting the operation of research vessels or platforms in particular areas or at specific times".[469] It called for "Full access for well planned scientific research … to be built in to the designation and operating conditions on a site by site basis."[470] However, Wildlife and Countryside Link argued that while "Monitoring and scientific study of marine protected areas, particularly highly protected areas, would enable us to improve our understanding of marine biodiversity and ecosystems", "it would be important to ensure that any scientific research beyond monitoring of the status of an MPA was agreed as part of the MPA designation and management process, and did not impact negatively on the site".[471] There had been an expectation among scientists that some MPAs would be in effect marine SSSIs but Professor Sir Howard Dalton was unable to offer reassurance to us that this would be the case.[472]


228. The place of science within the designation of sites has also been questioned. Decisions will have to be taken on whether they will be selected purely on scientific grounds, with other interests coming into consideration in the development of management plans once the sites had already been identified, or whether all stakeholders will be considered together (for example, those who wish to exploit the seas for energy, food or bioprospecting as well as conservationists and scientists). The RSPB called for sites to be chosen only on scientific grounds, with the impact of sites on socio-economic interests considered only through the preparation of management plans.[473] Conversely, IMarEST argued that "It is vital that economic and social factors should be taken into account and they should be a fundamental inclusion."[474] The Society for Underwater Technology argued that the Marine Bill concentrates "solely on environmental matters, but suggests that Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) would be worthwhile": "to be effective, MSP would need to engage with all users of the UK's seas and, if some of the main ones [eg oil, gas, renewable energy, defence] are not included, it is difficult to see how this would work."[475]

229. However, other witnesses argued that it may not be possible for MPAs to be underpinned by science at all. The EC maritime strategy green paper and the Convention for Biological Diversity, to which the UK is committed, follow an ecosystem management approach which recognises that improvement in biodiversity conservation requires the management of human activities and knowledge of how humans interact with the natural environment. This requires joined-up thinking, which is not in evidence at the moment. The University of Plymouth, for example, suggested that the research necessary to support this new integrated approach to marine policy falls between the remits of the various Research Councils and is currently hard to gain funding for.[476] The IACMST commented that "it is difficult to see how the feed through of marine science into policy on MPAs would work"[477] and questioned "the paucity of scientific knowledge on which policy decisions necessarily have to be made; the transfer mechanism itself; and the resources needed to carry it out."[478] We note, however, that there has been considerable work done to develop the science-based tools for selecting MPAs and managing them.

230. What is needed is a pilot of MPAs of meaningful dimensions in order to test these tools and use them to develop networks. We believe that the choice of marine protected sites must be underpinned by science and linked to the controlled exploitation of oceans. In particular, we believe that policy on MPAs needs to be closely related to the draft bills on climate change and energy. We further believe that MPAs should be capable of being treated as SSSIs and should be accessible to researchers for scientific study, wherever possible.


231. The gaps in the data are worrying but witnesses were equally concerned that the Government should not wait until all information was available before acting to designate sites. Dr Vincent of the JNCC observed that

Dr Tew of Natural England told us that all were agreed on two things: "One is that the process must be based on science … The other thing that we are all agreed on is that we want to proceed with all possible haste because industry suffers from uncertainty just as much as conservationists suffer from uncertainty."[480] We note that the Minister told us that "We are committed to the Marine Bill. We anticipate seeing a draft Bill early next year".[481] His intention is "by 2012 to have made substantial progress in completing our network by designating additional European sites, bringing the total of fully marine sites into the territorial sea adjacent to England and the UK offshore area to around 30."[482]

232. The RSPB called on the Government to "carry out an ecologically-driven assessment of the work needed to identify, designate and monitor a marine SPA (and SAC network) within a timescale that fits as closely as possible with its international commitments to implement a marine protected area network, ie by 2010".[483] Evidence to us suggests Government bodies are aware of the extent of the work required if not the detail. For example, Cefas acknowledged that "the proposed European Marine Strategy Directive … will require significant innovation in assessment and monitoring as well as in marine natural resource management."[484]

233. We recommend that the draft Marine Bill be brought forward without further delay, despite concerns about Defra's ability to deliver a network of MPAs. We require an assurance from the department as to the speedy presentation of the draft bill and the subsequent bill itself, and a commitment to ensuring that the bill is enacted by the end of the next parliamentary session. We recommend that Defra publish a clear timetable for the bill to complete its passage through Parliament within this timeframe. We recommend that Defra conduct and publish an assessment of what is needed to enable it to designate and monitor chosen sites. However, this assessment should not be used as an excuse to delay proceedings on the bill: if the department waits until it has all the necessary data, it will never proceed.

450   Ev 107, 136 Back

451   Ev 184 Back

452   Ev 194 Back

453   Ev 141,167 Back

454   Ev 109 Back

455   Ev 146 Back

456   Ev 133 Back

457   Ev 219 Back

458   Ev 123 Back

459   Ev 210 Back

460   Ev 111 Back

461   Defra, Marine Bill newsletter, Issue 5, March 2007, Back

462   Ev 119 Back

463   Ev 148 Back

464   Q 538 Back

465   Ev 265 Back

466   Ev 135 Back

467   Q 391 Back

468   Q 398 Back

469   Ev 172 Back

470   Ibid Back

471   Ev 157 Back

472   Q 540 Back

473   Ev 109 Back

474   Ev 233 Back

475   Ev 140 Back

476   Ev 146 Back

477   Ev 129 Back

478   Ibid Back

479   Q 381 Back

480   Q 398 Back

481   Q 491 Back

482   Q 537 Back

483   Ev 109 Back

484   Ev 100 Back

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