UK’s calls to protect 30% of seas

Yesterday, the DEFRA, the environmental section of the UK government, has supported international calls to designate and protect 30% of the world’s oceans as marine protected areas (MPAs).

My twitter feed has gone a bit mad since with so many comments on this announcement being made, so hopefully this will help clarify my position, and establish some facts around the recent interest in MPAs.
Firstly, more protection is great. The announcement is welcome. It’s policy which has been informed by scientific research. So why are so many people, myself included, sceptical about this?

To most people, it would seem obvious that you can’t fish in a marine protected area, so therefore they help preserve fish stocks. There’s only one problem with this statement, and that is that it isn’t true. There’s no legal definition of what an MPA is and fishing is allowed in most MPAs. In fact, some MPAs allow almost any activity to occur in them, and some even seem to have less strict requirements around fishing than exist outside of the MPAs.

The Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) set international targets for MPAs of 10% of the surface of the ocean. While these targets have not been met, there has been considerable progress in the last few years. However, how effective the MPAs really are is a matter of debate.
The UK has 36% of its seas designated as MPAs most of which have been designated in the last 10 years. In England (but not Wales or Scotland) these are mainly in the form of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). MCZs are legally defined, and certain ‘features’ which are either specific habitat types or specific species are protected in these areas. However, the vast majority have no management measures in place, and no restrictions on activities which can take place within them. They are frequently accused of being ‘paper parks’ with no real measures in place for protection.

The UK has also designated large MPAs in its territorial waters. Chagos in the Indian Ocean is the best example, covering a quarter of a million square miles of ocean. The Chagos MPA is a no-take marine reserves, meaning that fishing isn’t allowed in the area at all. Chagos has found to be an effective MPA, enhancing stocks of overfished species such as bigeye tuna. Other big, offshore MPAs have been established in many territorial waters around the world, however, in some cases, these look like they have been designed to meet the MPA area targets assigned by the CBD – for example, the Easter Island MPA had very little fishing activity in the area before the designation.

It is important to realise that MPAs don’t have to be no take marine reserves to be effective. MPAs can serve different purposes – for example, protecting a fragile habitat such as coral reefs or seagrass from destructive fishing methods – but still allowing some small-scale fishing using non-destructive techniques can do two things. Firstly, it can protect important marine habitats, and secondly, it may allow local support for the MPA in the first place, where as an MPA banning fishing altogether may face opposition from the local community. The large Chagos MPA was only established as the islands are unpopulated (or more accurately, the population has previously been removed). Creating some no take areas, but ‘zoning’ MPAs to allow some fishing in other areas can also be effective. In fact, a recent study has shown that no-take zones close to areas of high human activity can show the highest benefits in terms of increased fish biomass. The same study shows that isolated no-take MPAs show the biggest effect in increasing large predator biomass (i.e. are more effective in protecting big fish such as sharks). In short, a diverse range of MPAs need to be created, but they do need to be monitored and have some kind of restrictions on activity, and create changes to fishing practices occurring in the area to be effective.

The UK’s approach to MPAs has been derided by the Environmental Audit Committee. So, while the announcement of support for 30% of oceans to be protected is welcome, it is necessary to ensure what we have already got is fit for purpose.

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