Science and Technology CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the RSPB

“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 RSPB is Europe’s largest wildlife charity, with more than one million members, and we manage one of the largest conservation estates in the UK, comprising over 200 nature reserves. We are part of the BirdLife International partnership, a global alliance of independent national conservation organisations working in more than 100 countries. The RSPB’s policies are based on detailed and comprehensive scientific research, and we have considerable expertise on the operation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, the identification and management of protected areas and the factors governing bird population trends.

2. The RSPB campaigned strongly for the provision of MCZs in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, to form part of an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). We have put extensive time and effort into the MCZ processes in England and Wales, including attending local and regional stakeholder workshops, supplying data and responding to consultations.

3. Any discussion on the use of scientific evidence in the selection of MCZs in England and Wales must be seen in the wider context of significant and continuing under-investment in data collection at sea, to inform both marine protected area selection and strategic planning. This point has been made repeatedly by the RSPB to Governments in relation to seabirds for over a decade, and has also been recognised at the parliamentary level, for example by the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee.1

Overall response

4. Our headline response to the Committee’s question, based on this experience, is that:

(a)In large part the scientific evidence in the MCZ process was accurate, but was restricted by the criteria and guidance placed on the MCZ processes by governments and the statutory nature conservation bodies (SNCBs). In particular, this led to the exclusion of mobile species (and supporting evidence) from consideration during the site selection process, but also led to a focus on areas with high data availability.

(b)Although the evidence was considered best available in general, some important evidence and data sets were not considered by all stakeholders in the regional MCZ projects.

(c)The application of socio-economic evidence has been inconsistent and often undermined the primary objective of achieving a coherent MPA network. Sites important for large scale economic activity were screened out or moved at early stages of the MCZ processes in both England and Wales, despite clear ecological importance, and poor communication at a local level has led to an unbalanced impact upon (often more sustainable) local industries. The consequence of this has been strong anti-MCZ sentiment in many coastal communities, particularly around proposed highly protected sites.2

(d)The scientific proof required for the presence, extent and condition of features worthy of protection by MCZs has in general been greater than required by the socio-economic evidence. While ecological evidence has been subject to rigorous scrutiny and quality assurance processes, no such processes have been applied to socio-economic information used in the MCZ projects. Given the nature and scale of the UK marine area, there is also a high risk that the increasingly strict requirements for robust scientific evidence are both unfeasible and detrimental to the MCZ process, which JNCC and Natural England both agree has used the best evidence available at the time of selection.

On the use of scientific evidence

5. It is our opinion that in large part the scientific evidence used by the MCZ process was accurate, and in general represented the best available evidence at the time. This view is shared by JNCC and Natural England in their advice to Defra.3 We also believe, however, that the ability and willingness of regional MCZ projects to consider all available scientific data was restricted by the criteria and guidance applied to them by governments and the Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies (SNCBs), in particular for mobile species.

6. While the Ecological Network Guidance for both England and Wales did not completely exclude the possibility of designating MCZs for mobile species, it certainly did not encourage it. We feel that the exclusion of seabirds from the list of features for which MCZs should be sought, alongside a specific statement (in England) that MCZs should only be designated to protect seabirds covered by the Birds Directive “in exceptional circumstances”,4 was a key flaw which led to the exclusion of mobile species, and supporting evidence, from consideration by stakeholder groups. As a result, and given delays in the designation of marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for seabirds and waterbirds around the UK, the resulting MCZ proposals with other MPAs together will not form an ecologically coherent network, as required by a range of legal obligations and international commitments.5

7. The lack of mobile species consideration also meant that some important evidence on these species, which would have been of wider relevance in highlighting biodiverse and productive areas, was not considered at the site selection stage. For example, in Wales, mobile species have not been considered at all in the initial selection of sites and their boundaries.6 It is our experience that it was a struggle, in our engagement with certain regional MCZ projects, to ensure that any seabird data were included at all, even where those data where in line with those used for, and supported by analysis undertaken in support of, the UK Government’s scientifically rigorous selection process for marine Special Protection Areas under the EU Birds Directive.

8. We also feel that the MCZ guidance did not adequately allow or encourage examination of the relationships between MCZs and other MPAs (including Scottish MPAs), in the context of seeking a coherent UK MPA network. As a result the criteria and approaches, and hence the used of scientific evidence, was subject to variation, particularly between Welsh and English projects.

9. Although the wider evidence was considered best available in general, some important data sets were not considered by all stakeholders in the regional MCZ Projects, such as The Wildlife Trusts’ data on Areas of Additional Pelagic Ecological Importance (APEI),7 which was designed to be considered alongside existing datasets. This included a new composite spatial data layer provided by the RSPB on seabird foraging density.8 Additional to this, RSPB also provided, and continues to offer, species specific seabird factsheets and foraging radii maps to both the English and Welsh MCZ processes.

10. Furthermore, scientific data collected after March 2012 (in particular scientific survey data) has not been included to date and it is unclear how this will be used in the final selection of sites put forward for public consultation in December 2012.

On the use of socio-economic evidence

11. The principle of using socio-economic evidence in the MCZ process while the Marine and Coastal Access Bill was being debated was that it should primarily be used to determine preference between two sites of equal ecological importance, so as to minimise the socio-economic impact of designation.9

12. It is our opinion, however, that the use of socio-economic evidence was at best not consistently applied, in part stemming from the unclear nature of the relevant Project Delivery Guidance for regional projects,10 and at worst significantly undermined the primary objective of the MCZ process to “deliver and recommend an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas”.11

13. It is also our opinion that for the process of selecting highly protected MCZs in Wales, the consideration of economic activities resulted in the exclusion of important habitat areas, as well as mobile species. This was due to the way in which areas important for economic activity were screened out, resulting in highly protected MCZs which are neither likely to prevent the most damaging activities nor result in proposed sites covering the most ecologically important areas.

14. In addition, the burden of these highly protected sites, especially in coastal and inshore waters, has fallen disproportionately upon local communities, which often act in a more sustainable fashion than larger commercial interests. As a consequence, and due also to poor communication, large anti-MCZ sentiment has built up in some coastal communities, especially in and around proposals for highly protected sites.

15. In England, several sites identified on the basis of their features, based on the best available scientific evidence, were also reduced and moved following the consideration of socio-economics. For example, site NG1 in the Net Gain project as initially proposed was divided and reduced, with particular regard to proposed offshore wind and associated cable routes, to a selection of four significantly smaller sites, only two of which were put forward in the final recommendations, against the advice of the UK Science Advisory Panel (SAP).12 As a result, the locations of the final recommended sites cannot claim to be based primarily on environmental evidence.

16. Indeed, in the cases of both the Net Gain and Irish Sea Marine Conservation Zone Projects, sites were selected away from areas of socio-economic activity from the outset, rather than purely on biological grounds. This was the reason why, for example, the Flamborough-Helgoland frontal system, crucial for a range of marine wildlife, was omitted, and relevant scientific evidence not considered by the stakeholder group, despite clear advice from the SAP to do so.13

On the burden of proof for scientific evidence

17. It is our view that during the MCZ process, the burden of proof for scientific data and evidence was far greater than required for socio-economic evidence, which was not subjected to the same level of scrutiny or data standards. Evidence in the marine environment will never be perfect for all areas, given the complexity of interactions and scale of the UK marine area, and it must be accepted that the level of suitable evidence for marine designations cannot reach that of terrestrial designations. Furthermore, the availability of data on wildlife at sea has been constrained by significant under-investment in data collection at sea to inform both MPA selection and strategic planning.

18. The original Ecological Network Guidance14 Design Principle 9, prepared by Natural England and JNCC for the regional MCZ Projects in England, states that:

Lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for delaying network design and planning, including decisions on site identification.” (Page 4)

19. Furthermore, the MPA Science Advisory Panel (SAP), in reviewing the first iteration of MCZs,15 has stated that:

We emphasise that the MCZ process requires the use of the “best available evidence”. Some level of uncertainty in data is inevitable, and project teams should use the data provided unless there is robust evidence to the contrary available for particular areas.” (Paragraph 2.1.1)

20. It should also be noted that the statutory advice given to Defra by JNCC and Natural England in July 201216 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” (Page 7)

21. Furthermore, Natural England and JNCC are clear in this advice that:

Moderate and low confidence features should not necessarily prevent sites from being progressed for designation, particularly if there is confidence on the presence of the feature” (Page 10).

This is particularly true for feature condition, which was expected by JNCC and Natural England to have limited scientific evidence, especially outside existing designated sites.

22. We fully support the need for the selection of MPAs to be based upon the best available evidence, and we continue to call for further systematic research and monitoring to improve our knowledge of the marine environment. However, this need for an evidence-based process must not be used as a reason to delay the designation of MCZs, especially where they are regarded as being at risk from potentially damaging activities.

23. This fundamentally contradicts 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. This Principle is a fundamental part of the Marine and Coastal Access Act’s development and subsequent implementation in other areas, in particular marine planning.17

September 2012


2 Reference Areas in England and highly protected MCZs in Wales.



5 This includes the OSPAR commitment for an ecologically coherent network in place by 2012 and well managed by 2016, World Summit on Sustainable Development Agenda 21 commitment for representative networks of MPAs by 2012, Convention on Biological Diversity target for ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas (as renoted at Rio+20) and the MSFD requirement for spatial protection measures contributing to coherent and representative networks of MPAs in place by 2016.

6 Page 91.


8 Based on foraging radii maps and Seabird 2000 colony data, as well as species-specific measures of decreasing density with distance from colony and colony size.

9 Explanatory note 335 to the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 states, “Where there is a choice of alternative areas which are equally suitable on ecological grounds, socio-economic factors could be more significant in deciding which areas may be designated as an MCZ.”


11 Ibid. Section 4.1.

12 UK Science Advisory Panel (SAP) Draft response to Net Gain 3rd Iteration Report, May 2011, Paragraph 2.9.3, (note the Net Gain website and public access to previous iterations of MCZs is currently unavailable as of 7 September 2012). The SAP response also states that “we remain concerned that largely un-quantified [i.e. before an impact assessment is prepared] socio-economic issues based on stakeholder views are having a strong influence on the choice of individual sites at the earliest stage of each discussion... the primary purpose of MCZs is to conserve habitats and species that are representative and important indicators of ecological health; protection of unproductive areas of the seabed will not accomplish that.” (Paragraph 2.2).

13 E.g. ibid, Paragraph 2.9.14.




17 The High Level Marine Objectives for marine planning include “The precautionary principle is applied consistently in accordance with the UK Government and Devolved Administrations’ sustainable development policy.”

Prepared 9th April 2013