England’s conservation network is worse than useless


0.000001 – one hundred thousandth – is a number so small that to most people it seems like nothing at all. Yet four and a half years since the Marine Act of 2009 came into force – legislation that was heralded as the saviour of UK seas – this is the sum total of UK waters that is protected from all fishing for the purpose of nature conservation.

The Marine Act is that rare thing: a law supported by all political parties. The sea is dear to so many of us it transcends ideology. In the run up to the law’s enactment, there was widespread recognition that the seas were in trouble. Fisheries were in decline, once rich habitats had been stripped by two centuries of destructive fishing, and formerly abundant species had been brought to the verge of disappearance. Five such endangered species are featured on a set of stamps issued this month by the Royal Mail: sturgeon, common skate, spiny dogfish, conger eel and wolffish. There are dozens more.

Recognising the emerging crisis, coastal nations of the world committed in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to establish national networks of marine protected areas by 2012. The Marine Act established the legal framework for a UK marine protected area network that would be comprehensive and representative of the full spectrum of marine life, complementing more narrowly targeted EU directives.

In a spirit of optimism, work began in 2010 to build an English network of protected areas by 2012 (Scotland and Northern Ireland have passed domestic versions of the Marine Act and are working to longer timetables).

In late 2012, 127 marine conservation zones and 65 reference areas (places to be protected from all fishing) were recommended to the government. If implemented in full and protected fully from damaging activities, this would be a world-class network. It would lay the foundation for a spectacular resurgence of life in the sea and boost the prosperity of marine industries, including fishing. So the reaction was one of widespread dismay when the government announced in late 2013 that it would only establish 27 marine conservation zones and not a single reference area.

Under pressure from conservation bodies, tens of thousands of citizens and a group of 86 leading scientists, the government announced that there would be two more tranches of marine conservation zones to complete the network by 2016. In the first, a further 37 sites are now under consideration.

But this is where marine policy unravels comprehensively. None of the 27 conservation zones declared in 2013 have yet received any new protection. My students and I have probed Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Marine Management Organisation and various inshore fisheries and conservation authorities and it seems that virtually no new protection is on offer. In fact they seem to be falling over themselves to reassure the fishing industry that the zones will be open to business as usual.

Even in the few small places where protection from certain fishing methods is being (reluctantly) entertained the measures will be entirely voluntary.

Which begs the question: what was the point? Why spend upwards of £10m to create an elaborate network of paper parks? Why have a law that permits mandatory protection and leave protection to the goodwill of users?

As a professional marine scientist with 25 years’ experience researching the effects of marine protected areas worldwide, I think this leaves us in a worse position than before the Marine Act was conjured into being. Before there was nothing and we knew it. Now there is the illusion of protection. The person in the street will think the sea is well looked after at last, but there is still nothing. This network is worse than useless. Marine conservation policy has drifted far off its original course.

There is abundant evidence from places where other nations have been less hesitant, that marine protected areas work well when they are fully protected from fishing, and produce little benefit at all if left open to destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling and scallop dredging. No amount of official reassurance or obfuscation on marine conservation zones (they are beginning to seem like the same thing) can alter this fact. In the sea as in many walks of life, there is no free lunch. You get what you pay for. Benefits will only flow from protected areas where a high level of protection is given, backed by law, and enforced with determination.

There is still a way to rescue this sinking ship. The government should give full protection from all mobile fishing gears to the entirety of every zone they create, and place a significant fraction of them off limits to all fishing. It is the only way we can hope to restore the vitality, diversity and productivity of our seas, and offer a chance of recovery for endangered fish like the common skate, wolffish and sturgeon.

• This comment summarises arguments Prof Roberts will make in the annual Stamford Raffles Lecture at the Zoological Society of London on 17 June.