8.The Government stated that it intends for the third tranche of MCZs to help complete its “contribution to the Ecologically Coherent Network in the North East Atlantic”. We heard that to achieve this, the Government would have to designate an ambitious third tranche of zones. Only 50 of the 127 originally recommended MCZs have been designated to date. This is despite the statutory nature conservation bodies stating that designation of all 127 sites would constitute “good progress” towards the achievement of an Ecologically Coherent Network. Consequently, witnesses felt that there were still a number of gaps in the network, particularly for sites to protect sand, mud and highly mobile species.
9.In October 2016 the JNCC undertook an analysis of the existing MPA network and concluded that:
Some gaps remain in the existing MPA network in [Secretary of State] waters. These gaps could be addressed through a combination of adding additional features to existing MCZs, designating some of the remaining recommended MCZs from the Regional MCZ Projects, and identifying a small number of new site options.
In November 2016 the statutory nature conservation bodies undertook a consultation on potential site options for Tranche 3. The options discussed included many of the sites recommended by the regional projects, some new areas to protect mobile species and some new areas of search, suggested in order to fill the gaps identified by the JNCC. The Marine Conservation Society argued that these “50-odd sites” were needed “to complete the job. We are very, very supportive of those sites all being set up”.
10.During the course of this inquiry, our witnesses reiterated previous concerns that the evidence bar for MCZ site selection was set too high. At the start of the MCZ process the Government committed to making decisions based on the “best available evidence”, stating that “lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for postponing proportionate decisions on site selection”. This was the standard adopted by the regional projects when making site recommendations. However, the Government reversed this decision after the Science Advisory Panel raised doubts about the strength of the evidence base for some of the 127 sites that were originally recommended. They announced that whilst site recommendations could be based on the best available evidence, site designations would require ‘adequately robust’ levels of evidence. This led the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to conclude that the Government had “moved the goalposts” on evidence requirements during the MCZ selection process. Despite both this Committee and the Science and Technology Committee recommending that the Government select sites on the basis of the ‘best available’ data, we heard that Defra were “still requiring full scientific certainty for designation of sites, despite little or no investment in the gathering of further evidence to support [this]”.
11.Dr Frost of the Marine Biological Association argued:
I am always very concerned about how evidence-intensive this process is becoming … The UK [is] one of the top places in the world for marine scientific research… yet we are still always being hauled over the coals with wanting more and more information.
He noted that we will never “get to the stage where we can tick the evidence box” and expressed concern that the lack of perfect evidence may be used as a perpetual excuse not to move forward with MCZs. Witnesses argued that the Government needed to be more realistic about evidence requirements.
12.A number of witnesses argued that a complete network must include sites to protect mobile species, including sites for birds, mammals and fish. These sites aim to safeguard areas critical to the life cycle of these animals (such as breeding, nursery and feeding areas). In May 2016 the Government released a consultation calling for third-party proposals on MCZs for highly mobile species with guidance from the statutory nature conservation bodies. Stakeholders were given six weeks to put together proposals, including all the required supporting information and maps. We heard that this was an unrealistic timeframe, which limited the number and quality of sites proposed. Jeff Knott of the RSBP told us that:
A combination of that very short timescale of just a few weeks and the very high evidence bar that was set for being able to propose sites meant that we, as a community, really were not able to bring forward the number of sites that would be required to deliver a true ecologically coherent network.
They argued that the Government’s failure “To invest in research to identify important areas, instead relying solely on the work of [third] parties” meant that even if all proposed sites were adopted “the UK network will still fail to protect essential areas for mobile species”.
13.As marine nature conservation policy is devolved, Defra also has to co-ordinate work with the devolved administrations. The Government has recognised the importance of coordinating effectively with the devolved nations to establish a coherent network of MPAs. In 2012 a Joint Administration Statement noted:
There is a strong scientific case for an assessment of a marine protected area network to be based on biogeographic regions rather than administrative regions … we are actively working across the UK administrations to agree on an approach which links all marine protected area programmes in the UK.
14.We heard that “there has to be a sensible, joined-up, co-ordinated approach in these areas so that protected area networks benefit the ecology of the area as a whole”. This is particularly important as fish and highly mobile species, such as cetaceans and seabirds, are not restricted by national or territorial boundaries.
15.However, our previous report noted that “although each Administration is following the ‘OSPAR principles’ for designing MPA networks … each has interpreted these differently and is taking a different approach to identifying marine protected areas under national legislation”. For example, analysis of what constitutes an Ecologically Coherent Network uses slightly different criteria in each of the four administrations. Witnesses expressed particular concern that “in the south-west… the sites proposed have effectively been cut off on the jurisdictional boundaries through the sea”.
16.It is essential that the UK has a well-coordinated and ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas. The Government aims for the third tranche of MCZ to help complete its “contribution to the Ecologically Coherent Network in the North East Atlantic”. To fulfil this ambition, the Government must put forward an ambitious third tranche of MCZs and improve cross-border collaboration. However, the current evidence threshold for MCZ designation set by Defra is unreasonably high. Despite having one of the best marine evidence bases in the world, evidence for some features in recommended MCZs cannot reach the standards set by Defra. Defra have exacerbated this problem due to their unwillingness to provide adequate investment for the gathering of further evidence.
17.As it stands, the network fails to adequately protect mobile species, sand, and mud habitats. Although we welcome the Department’s recent call for third party proposals on Tranche 3 zones for mobile species, we believe that the six-week timeframe and high evidence threshold placed unrealistic expectations on respondents, limiting the quality and number of submissions received
18.The Government should not make perfection the enemy of the good by using a lack of ‘perfect data’ as an excuse to delay the designation of sites. The Government must adopt a precautionary principle approach to Tranche 3 site selection and designations should be made using ‘best available’ data. In selecting the third tranche of MCZs, Defra Ministers must take note of the statutory nature conservation bodies’ ‘gap analysis’ and ensure it fills all the gaps identified. This must include designation of sites to protect both sand and mud habitats and sites for mobile species. The third tranche must be considerably more ambitious and larger than the two previous tranches, bringing the total number of MCZs much closer to the 127 zones originally recommended. Given the time that has elapsed since the 127 zones were identified, we are concerned by the delay in designating all the sites that will be required to achieve an Ecologically Coherent Network. The Government has indicated that the timescale for the third tranche may slip even further. We think this is unacceptable, and call on the Government to bring forward proposals as soon as possible