Marine science is crucial to a growing number of Government initiatives, yet our understanding of the marine environment remains patchy. Whilst other countries have undertaken large scale and expensive programmes to map their marine environment, current resource restrictions mean the Government must seek to be more clever about how we advance our understanding of the marine environment and improve our capability in marine science.
The UK Marine Science Strategy and Marine Science Coordination Committee were positive developments for marine science. However, a step change in activity is needed for their benefits to be fully realised. We need to see both delivering results. An implementation plan for the UK Marine Science Strategy would help drive forward strategic oversight and coordination, and put its ideas in practice. The Marine Science Coordination Committee should seek to widen participation and increase its focus on results.
We recognise that the Natural Environment Research Council is operating with inadequate resources at present, which has had an effect on its support for marine and polar science. However, we were concerned to hear about some of the repercussions of its reprioritisation exercises. It seems there are difficulties with both the reduced amount of funding for strategic marine science and the mechanisms by which that funding is delivered. NERC should consider what impact restructuring its research funding has had on its support for marine science. It is important that NERC staff should be able to carry out strategic work without disadvantaging their academic careers.
The Government had a strong public and cross-party mandate to establish a network of Marine Conservation Zones. Despite this, the process has been complicated and protracted to the extent that it has taken three years to reach a point where 31 zones are being consulted on for designation at an unspecified time, with management measures yet to be agreed. We have not seen a clear reason why the Government has selected these 31 zones rather than others and the Government appears to have lost impetus for its vision for these protected areas. A balance needs to be struck between obtaining an adequate evidence base for Marine Conservation Zones and allowing the process to move forward in the face of uncertainty. Government's initial guidance on Marine Conservation Zones required use of the best information currently available to underpin site selection. Delays to the designation process increase uncertainty amongst stakeholders, which causes anxiety, particularly to those local stakeholders who hear scare stories about draconian future management measures. Plans for future tranches of Marine Conservation Zones need to be set out in a clear timetable and Defra should give further consideration to how it engages with local stakeholders.
Collecting scientific evidence about our marine environment is fundamentally important to the Government's marine policy agenda. Further work is clearly necessary. We consider that more could be done within the licensing regime for commercial operations at sea to help gather data, such as seabed surveys or habitat maps, that would improve understanding of the UK's marine environment considerably. We were concerned to hear about the difficulties scientists encountered when trying to fund long-term monitoring projects and that funding for such projects remains opportunistic and piecemeal. This is an area in which the Marine Science Coordination Committee should redouble its efforts. We were interested to hear about the promising opportunities that autonomous underwater vehicles offer for improving our understanding of the marine environment. These vehicles could dramatically alter the way in which marine data is collected and the UK should seek to be at the forefront of their development.