Science and Technology CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The Wildlfe Trusts

This submission refers to Point 4 in the Terms of Reference.

Summary Points

The nature of the stakeholder process for selecting Marine Conservation Zones led to a number of compromises in the network balancing ecological requirements against socio-economic concerns.

The guidance from Defra to the regional MCZ projects stated site selection should be on the basis of the best available evidence.

It is unreasonable and inappropriate to apply the same rigorous evidence levels from SAC designation to a collaborative stakeholder-led process.

Peer reviewed publication is not always the end aim of data collection and non-published data should not necessarily be viewed as less robust.

We would query whether the same level of scrutiny was applied to the socio-economic data used in the process.

Failure to designate the recommended Marine Conservation Zone network in its entirety as soon as possible leaves ecosystems vulnerable to continued pressure, reducing opportunities and chances for recovery and may create an network that is not ecologically coherent.

Has the selection of proposed Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) been based on robust scientific evidence? How well has the scientific evidence been balanced with socio-economic considerations and communicated to affected coastal communities?

1. The Wildlife Trusts (TWT) welcomed Government commitment to achieving an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in UK waters and the contribution that the designation of MCZs will make to this network. As a result TWT has engaged in all four of the Regional MCZ stakeholder projects. Engaging at national, regional and local levels we have been working to ensure that the recommendations put forward to government represent the best possible gain for marine biodiversity.

2. In September last year, after over 2500 meetings spread over two years, the stakeholders presented recommendations for 127 Marine Conservation Zones to Natural England and JNCC. The stakeholder led process included representatives from a wide range of marine sectors; this led to a number of compromises in the network. Despite this, TWT believes that these recommendations will make a significant contribution to a wider network of MPAs in UK waters. These sites represent the views of as wide a range of stakeholders as possible and have ensured that socio-economic interests have been taken into account whilst ensuring that those sites put forward have been based on the best available evidence at the time. We believe that for the most part, this network meets the requirements of the Ecological Network Guidance (ENG). (Guidance on Selection and Designation of MCZs (Note 1), Defra, September 2010).

3. Data requirements for the sites were made clear in advice from Defra to the regional projects and in the ENG which stated, “Network design should be based on the best information currently available. Lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for postponing proportionate decisions on site selection.”

4. The Science Advisory Panel (SAP) recognised the value of the network towards achieving an ecologically coherent network of MPAs, stating in its assessment of the recommended network, “If the recommended network of MCZs is implemented in full, ecological coherence can be achieved.”

(Science Advisory Panel Assessment of the Marine Conservation Zone Regional Projects Final Recommendations, 15 November 2011).

5. The SAP did however raise some doubts about the robustness of some of the data cited as evidence for the sites. The Minister made the following statement in response to the SAP advice which stated, “It is vital that we have an adequate evidence base for every site if we are to create successful well-managed MCZs. An adequately robust evidence base will be essential when we come to implement management measures.” 15 November 2011.

6. TWT are concerned that this statement indicates intent to increase the burden of proof for designation of recommended MCZs- one not present at the outset of the Regional Project process. As a result, the designation of MCZs has now been delayed. As we understand it, two reasons are given for this delay:

Extra time is needed to learn lessons from the review of the evidence base supporting the designation of the most recent tranche of candidate Special Areas of Conservation—the cSAC review.

A review of the evidence base is called for by the comments of the Science Advisory Panel.

7. The cSAC review looked at evidence supporting three cSACs. This concluded that the evidence base was sufficient, but made some recommendations about transparency and stakeholder engagement in the process. However, it is our view that it is unreasonable and inappropriate to apply the same rigorous evidence levels from SAC designation (a top-down, science based process), to a collaborative stakeholder-led process where, following Defra guidance, discussions have been based on “best available evidence” and where compromises made during the decision making process, frequently moved MCZs away from well-understood and well-evidenced areas for socio-economic reasons. It seems particularly unreasonable to apply these evidence levels after the fact.

8. Furthermore, it is unclear if the SAP concerns around data are aimed at the quality of evidence used in the stakeholder process or in the quality in the way it has been reported. We are aware of cases where datasets were used by stakeholders in developing recommendations, but were not cited in the final report. Additionally the robustness of some data was downgraded by the SAP due to a lack of publication in peer reviewed journals. We would refute the claim that as a result non-published data is less robust as publication is not always an end aim of data collection. Additionally, we would query whether the same level of scrutiny was applied to the socio-economic evidence.

9. The Wildlife Trusts welcome the investment that Government is making in the collection of new information as part of the data review. However, data requirements should be balanced against the practicalities and costs of gathering data in the marine environment, the urgent need to act to protect our marine environment and the precautionary principle which states that “lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Evidence requirements should therefore be reasonably obtainable considering urgent timescales.

10. TWT support the advice from JNCC and NE regarding the recommended network where it states, “overall the recommendations submitted by the regional MCZ projects, when combined with the contribution with existing MPAs, have met many of the network design principles and represent not only good progress towards the achievement of an ecologically coherent network but also a balance between the ecological requirements for the network and minimising impact on socio-economic interests” and furthermore, where they state “we note that the availability of evidence is only one factor when considering whether a recommended MCZ should go forward for designation.”

11. It is our view that the Regional Stakeholder led projects followed the ENG and therefore the intent and ambitions of the Marine and Coastal Access Act. Further delay to the process in order to gather increasing levels of evidence leaves ecosystems vulnerable to continued pressure, reducing opportunities and chances for recovery. We also remain concerned that designation of a few of the sites will result in the creation of a network which fails to meet its “ecologically coherent” target and therefore fails to meet the aims and ambitions of the Marine and Coastal Access Act and international targets set by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Recognition should be made that this network attempts to balance socio-economic needs against the requirements of the ENG and that, if designated in full, represents our best opportunity to contribute towards an ecologically coherent network of MPAs in UK waters.

September 2012

Prepared 9th April 2013