Marine Science - Science and Technology Committee Contents

3  Marine Conservation Zones


17. A protected area is "a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values".[72] There are a number of different types of marine protected area in seas and coastal areas around the UK. These include:

  • Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, designated under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives;
  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest, derived from national legislation; and
  • Ramsar sites, designated through the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.[73]

The UK Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) introduced a new type of marine protected area; Marine Conservation Zones, which the Government is committed to bringing into effect.[74] Sites can be selected in English and Welsh inshore waters and UK offshore waters around England, Wales and Northern Ireland.[75] Marine Conservation Zones can be put in place to conserve marine flora, fauna, habitats, or features of geological or geomorphological interest.[76] This legislation was passed with strong cross-party support.[77] During its consideration in Parliament, Richard Benyon remarked that this legislation provided "an historic opportunity"[78] and Marine Conservation Zones could "make a real difference to the marine environment, but that will happen only if they form a coherent, dynamic and flexible network".[79] Under the Act, Marine Conservation Zones can be used to protect particular rare or threatened species or to conserve the diversity of UK marine life.[80] In contrast to other marine protected areas, the Act states that when choosing sites to become Marine Conservation Zones, authorities can "have regard to any economic or social consequences".[81] In addition, the Act specified that Marine Conservation Zones should help "form a network" of protected areas.[82]

18. In England, recommendations on which sites should be selected as Marine Conservation Zones were developed by the Government's statutory nature conservation bodies, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Natural England, through a set of four regional projects.[83] These projects were intended to give local stakeholders an opportunity to recommend possible Marine Conservation Zones in their areas or have their concerns taken into account.[84] In September 2011, following more than 2500 meetings over two years,[85] these regional projects recommended 127 Marine Conservation Zones to the JNCC and Natural England.[86] In December 2012 Defra announced its consultation on the "first tranche" of Marine Conservation Zones for designation. This consultation consisted of 31 possible Marine Conservation Zones, which are shown below (Fig 1 and Box 1).
Box 1: The 31 sites in Defra's December 2012 consultation:
Cumbria CoastChesil Beach and Stennis Ledges
Fylde OffshoreSouth of Dorset
Hilbre Island Group Poole Rocks
North of Celtic Deep Stour and Orwell Estuaries
East of Haig FrasBlackwater, Crouch, Roach and Colne Estuaries
Southwest Deeps (west) Medway Estuary
The CanyonsThanet Coast
LundyFolkestone Pomerania
Padstow Bay and surrounds Hythe Bay
Isles of ScillyBeachy Head West
The ManaclesKingmere
Upper Fowey and Pont Pill Pagham Harbour
Whitsand and Looe Bay Aln Estuary
Tamar EstuarySwallow Sands
Skerries Bank and Surround Rock Unique

It is the process that led to these recommendations, and Defra's subsequent actions, that were of interest to us in this inquiry. In this chapter, we first consider how scientific evidence was used in producing the recommendations, before looking at how this was balanced with socio-economic concerns. We then turn to the next steps for the process.

Use of scientific evidence

19. In 2010 the four regional projects were directed by Defra to find the best available scientific evidence to underpin their selection of recommended Marine Conservation Zones.[87] Guidance from Defra indicated that sites should be selected "on the best information currently available" and "lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for postponing proportionate decisions on site selection".[88] To assist with this venture, the JNCC and Natural England provided information including a broad-scale habitat map, locations of rare species or habitats and information about existing marine protected areas. This was supplemented with additional local information. After a local consultation process that involved over one million people,[89] these projects reported in September 2011. They recommended a total of 127 Marine Conservation Zones around the UK.

20. Defra established a Science Advisory Panel to support the four regional projects in selecting Marine Conservation Zones. This Panel consisted of "expert marine scientists" who would "support the four regional projects in the Marine Conservation Zone selection process by offering objective scientific assessment of site proposals" and advice to Ministers.[90] The Science Advisory Panel discussed the recommendations made by the regional projects and sent their official advice to Government in October 2011. The Panel's report identified a number of deficiencies in the regional project proposals. These included: doubts about the robustness of some data cited as evidence, questions about the required minimum proportion of certain habitat types, uncertainties regarding conservation objectives, over-simplicity of management objectives, and gaps in information about the presence or extent of marine features. However, the panel also stated "we are content that, if the recommended network of Marine Conservation Zones is implemented in full, ecological coherence can be achieved".[91]

21. Shortly after the Science Advisory Panel provided their advice, the Minister announced an additional £5.5 million for further research alongside a statement that Marine Conservation Zones required an "adequate" or "adequately robust" evidence base.[92] Despite the regional projects having proceeded on the basis of best available evidence, he reiterated this point to us, stating "we do not require the most perfect pinpoint accuracy, but we need to have a good, robust evidence base".[93] This change was purportedly due to a challenge to the designation of European marine sites in the south-west.[94] But as Alec Taylor, RSPB, pointed out:

    "best available" is exactly what the Marine Conservation Zone process was set out to use. It is a very different process from that which is used for designating European marine sites, which is very much a top-down, science-led process. The marine conservation zone process is a stakeholder-led, consensus-based project using a vast range of both ecological and socio-economic evidence. It could only reasonably expect to be able to use the best available evidence at the time in order to select its sites.[95]

Charles Clover, journalist, went further, arguing that "the 'best available evidence' is what the Act says. The 'best evidence' is what the lawyers have required us, apparently, to require, and that is completely wrong. It breaks the circle of trust that the public had at the time of the Marine Act".[96] It appeared that Defra had shifted the goalposts as the Marine Conservation Zone selection process was nearing completion.[97] Instead of providing evidence that reflected the best current understanding of the marine environment in an area to support their Marine Conservation Zone selection, Defra then required the regional projects to produce the best, or most robust, evidence possible, regardless of the feasibility of such a requirement.

22. Questions were raised about whether the burden of proof created by this shift was reasonably obtainable,[98] especially given the level of investment in marine data collection. [99] Less than 20% of UK marine habitats have been mapped and Government would have to "spend an awful lot of money" to get the robust evidence it hoped for. [100] As Professor de Mora, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, put it "you get what you pay for".[101] It is also questionable whether further evidence would make the Marine Conservation Zone process any less contentious, as Dr Frost, Marine Biological Association, explained:

There is always this sort of utopian ideal that somewhere down the line we will have all—in quotation marks—"the evidence". Science does not work like that. What science does is it answers questions and, in doing so, raises a whole new set of questions. [...] That is how science works. It produces evidence, answers questions, but in doing so it opens up whole new horizons and gaps. I am not sure that the scientific approach is always appreciated when you are gathering evidence.[102]

23. The JNCC and Natural England reviewed the regional project recommendations, taking into account the findings of the Science Advisory Panel and further evidence that had been produced, to put together their final recommendations to Defra.[103] It recommended that all 127 Marine Conservation Zones should be designated.[104] This advice included an assessment of the presence, extent and condition of marine features that each Marine Conservation Zone intended to protect, which the Marine Conservation Society summarised as shown in Box 2:[105]
Box 2: Marine Conservation Zone evidence base

The knowledge on the presence of features within the network is variable, particularly from inshore where there are numerous reports from diver surveys and drop-down video, to offshore where drop-down camera surveys, and side-scan sonar are rarer because of cost, and less human development and infrastructural projects.

There are 127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones within the network based on the presence of 1,205 features.

Each of these 127 sites will have a range of features and for these 1,205 features there is high, low or medium confidence on various features being present: (high = 41% (or 499 features); medium = 20%, (289) features, and low = 36% (436) features). However, just because a site has low confidence for some features does not mean it cannot be designated for other features.

There is high confidence of the extent (area of coverage) for 16% (189) of the features. Again medium or low confidence in extent should not prevent designation; it just reflects lack of investment in marine surveys on the extent of features.

There is generally low confidence on the 'condition' of features rather than presence of those features within the sites. The statutory advice given to DEFRA by the JNCC and Natural England in July 2012 states the following: "We advise that some features or sites may appear to have less information than others in terms of contribution to the network design principles and ecological benefits; however, this may be a reflection of limited data and evidence rather than an indication of their importance".

The Government appears to have moved the goalposts during the Marine Conservation Zone designation process, to require robust evidence showing the presence or extent of marine features rather than the best available evidence reflecting our current understanding of the marine environment. We support the principle that Marine Conservation Zones should be based on sound scientific evidence. We consider that the Government should adhere to its standard of best available evidence, as set out in its initial Marine Conservation Zone guidance, that "network design should be based on the best information currently available" and "lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for postponing proportionate decisions on site selection".

Inclusion of socio-economic evidence

24. The inclusion of socio-economic concerns in the decision-making process for Marine Conservation Zones was a new development for marine protected area policy. We appreciate that a significant investment of time and energy has been made by all those involved in the stakeholder consultation process. That said, evidence submitted to us and our discussions in Falmouth have highlighted a number of concerns about the way in which socio-economic evidence has been used. We were also concerned to hear about the extent to which discussions had become "polarised".[106] We consider here issues with communications and engagement, consideration of socio-economic benefits and discussion of management measures.


25. We appreciate that a significant effort was made to engage with a range of stakeholders during the Marine Conservation Zone process. However, our meetings in Falmouth confirmed that there were people who felt excluded from the consultation process. It seems that more use could have been made of the contacts held by the Marine Management Organisation to help the regional projects get in touch with local stakeholders, particularly in local fishing communities who may not otherwise be as forthcoming as other corporate institutions. Local communities, whose practices may be more sustainable should not lose out to larger industrial operations.[107] Stakeholders told us that it could be difficult to keep up to date with the process, particularly given the number of lengthy reports and consultation documents being published.[108] As Joan Edwards, Wildlife Trusts, pointed out "even now, if you go on to the Defra website, it is very difficult to find out where and what marine conservation zones are and what they are trying to achieve."[109]


26. The Act provided for consideration of socio-economic concerns when designating Marine Conservation Zones, but this provision appears to have been interpreted solely in terms of the socio-economic costs associated with establishing marine protected areas. As the Minister noted, marine protected areas can also provide socio-economic benefits.[110] Functioning ecosystems and sustainable livelihoods are not mutually exclusive.[111] Joan Edwards, Wildlife Trusts, told us the Government had:

only looked at the impacts on people and industry. It does not look at the benefits of marine protected areas. We think that is ludicrous because we are establishing these [Marine Protected Areas] for a really good reason. We believe this will help bring back our marine environment into a healthy state, and that should be good for fishermen and other people.[112]


27. The way in which sites would be managed after being selected as Marine Conservation Zones was a particular concern for people whose livelihoods or leisure activity could be directly affected. Yet consultation on management measures for recommended Marine Conservation Zones was not included in the regional projects process. James Cross, Marine Management Organisation, told us "generic descriptions about the types of management measures" were included in discussions, but a full consultation would not come until later in the process.[113] The Minister did not provide further details about when management would be discussed, saying he could not give "a precise answer" but a consultation would happen in the future.[114] Professor Ian Boyd, Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, argued that it was first necessary to identify sites before management could be discussed and it was "absolutely right" that the questions of what to protect and how to protect it were separated. [115] He continued:

    clearly, what we have not managed to do is to make sure that the stakeholders understand that separation and that their voices will be fully heard within the "What are we going to do about it?" or "How are we going to manage it?" question. At the moment, we are still on the question of what is going to be protected and consulting on that. Once that is out of the way, there is another process to be put in place that will fully engage the local stakeholders that might be affected by this, particularly those who have commercial or economic interests, so that they will have a full say in what happens eventually.[116]

This lack of clarity on management measures creates uncertainty regarding the outcome of the Marine Conservation Zone process for stakeholders, and may even have contributed to a backlash against the project, fostering misleading stories, for example that all activities will be banned, even walking dogs on beaches.[117] Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Marine Conservation Society, stated "people will see lines on maps but want to know what happens in them. When we get clarity in the measures, then we can have a really decent conversation with stakeholders at the local level."[118]

28. We are not convinced that the issues of what to conserve and how to conserve it can be separated as easily as the Minister suggests, particularly in a stakeholder-driven process with negotiations happening at a local level to decide which sites should be chosen to be protected on the basis of their biological importance and socio-economic impact. People need to understand what Marine Conservation Zones mean for their lifestyles and livelihoods. The absence of a substantive discussion on likely management measures perpetuates uncertainty, undermines local support for Marine Conservation Zones and creates room for scare-mongering. We recommend that the Government produce a clear statement on how management measures will be decided and tailored to specific Marine Conservation Zones, alongside a clear timetable showing when these will be discussed.

Defra's current consultation

29. Defra, at time of publication, was considering 31 of the 127 sites recommended to become Marine Conservation Zones. It considers these 31 to be "suitable for designation in 2013" whilst anticipating "additional Marine Conservation Zones to be designated in the future."[119] Defra stated that these sites have been selected on the following criteria:

    Whether a Marine Conservation Zone, and all of its features, are suitable for designation in the 2013 tranche depends on the levels of confidence in the scientific evidence and the balance between the site's conservation advantages and the socio-economic costs.[120]

30. We heard concerns that the balance being struck had shifted too far towards socio-economic concerns and away from conservation priorities, both during the site selection process and Defra's current consultation, with scientific evidence left "disadvantaged" as a result.[121] During site selection, the boundaries of recommended sites were changed so that the final recommendations include "sites that are either not in the most ecologically important areas or have been reduced, clipped or changed as a result of the socio-economic considerations".[122] Indeed, the Science Advisory Panel reported "the identification of locations for protection has relied greatly on socio-economic considerations with biodiversity often of secondary consideration or taken account of late in the process".[123] The selection of sites for the first tranche has in effect become a political decision about what weight to attach to socioeconomic and environmental concerns.[124] As Professor Boyd described "there is going to be a judgment call to be made about where the balance sits in terms of costs and benefits to particular conservation features or socio-economic features."[125]

31. In their recommendations to Defra, the JNCC and Natural England highlighted 59 sites that were at higher risk of damage or deterioration.[126] Indeed, the Wildlife Trusts told us they had evidence of one of these sites being damaged since being recommended for protection.[127] However, only a limited number of the 59 sites identified as being at high risk by the JNCC and Natural England have been put forward for consultation in the first tranche, despite these having "a stronger case for earlier designation".[128] We compared the 31 sites selected by Defra to the 59 sites recommended by Natural England and the JNCC for early designation on the basis of being at higher risk of degradation. Only eight sites were on both lists. The level of crossover is outlined in Box 3.[129] 28 sites recommended for earlier designation are not in Defra's current consultation.
Box 3: Comparison of "at risk" sites and sites in consultation
in consultation/not "at risk" not in consultation/"at risk" in consultation/"at risk"
Aln EstuaryBeachy Head East Beachy Head West
Blackwater, Crouch, Roach, Colne Estuaries BembridgeChesil Beach and Stennis Ledges
Fylde OffshoreCape Bank Cumbrian Coast
North of Celtic Deep Celtic DeepEast of Haig Fras
Pagham HarbourCompass Rose Folkestone Pomerania
Rock UniqueDover to Deal Hilbre Island Group
Swallow SandsDover to Folkestone Hythe Bay
Upper Fowey and Pont Pill East MeridianIsles of Scilly
East Meridian - Eastern side Kingmere
East of Celtic Deep Lundy
East of Jones Bank Padstow Bay (and surrounds)
Greater Haig Fras Poole Rocks
Holderness Offshore Skerries Bank (and surrounds)
Inner Bank South Dorset
Markham's Triangle Southwest Deeps (west)
Mud Hole Stour and Orwell Estuaries
Norris to Ryde Tamar Estuary
North West of Jones Bank Thanet Coast
Offshore Brighton The Canyons
Ordford Inshore The Manacles
Sefton Coast Medway Estuary
Slieve Na Griddle Torbay
South East of Falmouth Whitsand and Looe Bay
South of Celtic Deep
South of Falmouth
South Rigg
Swale Estuary
Thames Estuary

32. There is a lack of clarity regarding why the proposed 31 Marine Conservation Zones were selected for designation first, despite the JNCC and Natural England's advice that 59 sites, 51 of which are not included in the first tranche, are currently at high risk of further damage. The Government should set out the reasons for not putting these sites forward for consultation and outline action being taken to prevent further damage to these areas as the Marine Conservation Zone process continues. We agree with the principle that socio-economic concerns should be taken into account when designating Marine Conservation Zones. We recognise that it is difficult to balance socio-economic and scientific concerns. However, at present it is not clear why certain sites are being progressed and others not. Given that the weight given to socio-economic concerns compared to scientific evidence is a political judgement, we recommend that the Government should publish the criteria being used by Defra to select sites for conservation.

Next steps

33. It has been over three years since the Marine and Coastal Access Act was passed, with cross-party consensus that Marine Conservation Zones were necessary and widespread public support.[130] Despite this, the designation process has been repeatedly delayed and Marine Conservation Zones have become increasingly controversial. The project seems to be in danger of losing sight of its original vision for marine conservation in the UK. Charles Clover told us that "nobody knows what the bloody things are for and no Minister has ever said. While we are in this position, we will go on failing".[131] We are concerned that a clear vision for Marine Conservation Zones has not been articulated by the Government. We recommend that it does so in the response to this report.

34. There is extensive frustration among industry and other stakeholders over the delays to this process, which have created uncertainty and allowed sensitive environments to be further degraded.[132] The Minister seemed to have no clear plans for the future, beyond indicating he would evaluate the findings of the consultation "with a view to designating towards the end of the summer or into the autumn".[133] This delay appears to stem, in part, from a fear of judicial review. The Minister expressed concerns about leaving the process open to being "buried in the courts",[134] although he insisted that he had not been "closeted with Defra's lawyers on this".[135] We were disappointed to hear that he could not "say precisely when the next tranche will be announced".[136] We were pleased to hear that the Minister is keen to move the Marine Conservation Zone process forward, but we have not seen this intention translated into action. The Minister should not let his priorities be set by fear of judicial review. Further delay to the process perpetuates the uncertainty that has already been damaging to the Marine Conservation Zone project. We recommend that Government set out a clear timetable for designation of this tranche and future tranches of Marine Conservation Zones, with a clear commitment to an end date by which the ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas, as the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 requires, will be established.

72  Back

73   Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK, JNCC and Natural England, June 2012 Back

74   The Coalition: our programme for government, HM Government, 2010, p18 Back

75   The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 gave Scottish Ministers powers to designate marine protected areas in Scotland's seas. The Northern Ireland Assembly's Marine Bill includes provision for Marine Conservation Zones in Northern Ireland's inshore waters. The Welsh Government has undertaken its own Marine Conservation Zone designation project for its inshore waters. Back

76   Marine and Coastal Access Act Part 5 117 (1)  Back

77   Q 321 [Richard Benyon], See also HC Deb 2009 27 Oct Col 211 and HC Deb 23 June 2009 Col 767 Back

78   HC Deb 23 June 2009 col 760 Back

79   HC Deb 23 June 2009 col 762 Back

80   Marine and Coastal Access Act Part 5 117 (4 and 5) Back

81   Marine and Coastal Access Act Part 5 117 (7) Back

82   Marine and Coastal Access Act Part 5 123 (2) Back

83   Net Gain, Balanced Seas, Finding Sanctuary and Irish Sea Conservation Zones Back

84 Conservation Zone/default.aspx  Back

85   Ev 101 para 2 Back

86 Conservation Zone/default.aspx English territorial waters and UK offshore waters ad Back

87 These were Balanced Seas, Irish Sea Conservation Zones, Finding Sanctuary and Net Gain. Back

88   Ev 101 para 3 Back

89   Q 8 [Joan Edwards] Back

90 Conservation Zone/Marine Conservation Zone-sap.htm  Back

91   Ev 101 para 4 Back

92  Back

93   Q 321 [Richard Benyon] Back

94   Q 8 [Dr Solandt] Back

95   Q 2 [Alec Taylor] Back

96   Q 266 [Charles Clover] Back

97   Q8 [all], Q214 [Dr Frost] Back

98   Ev w1 para 6 Back

99   Q 5, Ev 99 para 4.1 Back

100   Q 217 [Dr Frost] Back

101   Q 217 [Professor de Mora] Back

102   Q 216 [Dr Frost] Back

103   JNCC and Natural England's advice to Defra on recommended Marine Conservation Zones, July 2012, p1,  Back

104   JNCC and Natural England's advice to Defra on recommended Marine Conservation Zones, July 2012, p1 Back

105   Ev 138 para 2.8 Back

106   Q 222 [all] Back

107   Q 13 [Alec Taylor] Back

108   See, for example,  Back

109   Q 26 [Joan Edwards] Back

110   Q 328 [Richard Benyon] Back

111   Q 222 [Dr Frost] Back

112   Q 33 [Joan Edwards] Back

113   Q 283 [James Cross] Back

114   Q 332 [Richard Benyon] Back

115   Q 335 [Professor Boyd] Back

116   Q 335 [Professor Boyd] Back

117   Q 25 [Joan Edwards] Back

118   Q 31 [Dr Solandt] Back

119 Conservation Zone-condoc-121213.pdf Ministerial foreword Back

120   Consultation document /2 Back

121   Q 220 [Dr Frost], Ev 98 para 4.2, Ev 109 para 15, Ev 138 para 2.7 Back

122   Q 12 [Alec Taylor] Back

123   Science Advisory Panel Assessment, November 2011, p4 Back

124   Q 328 [Professor Boyd] Back

125   Q 328 [Professor Boyd] Back

126   JNCC and Natural England's advice to Defra on recommended Marine Conservation Zones, July 2012, p3 Back

127   Q 11 [Joan Edwards] Back

128   JNCC and Natural England's advice to Defra on recommended Marine Conservation Zones, July 2012, p386 Back

129   Sites taken from Natural England's advice package p 386-387 and Defra's consultation document p 2-3 Back

130   Q 243 [Charles Clover] Back

131   Q 259 [Charles Clover] Back

132   Q 3, Q 42 [Joan Edwards] Back

133   Q 337 [Richard Benyon] Back

134   Q 322 [Richard Benyon] Back

135   Q 323 [Richard Benyon] Back

136   Q 336 [Richard Benyon]  Back

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Prepared 11 April 2013