Skip to content Accessibility statement

Government policy to protect UK seas ‘has drifted far off course’

Posted on 16 June 2014

The Marine Conservation Zone network now under construction was heralded as a new beginning for life in UK seas. But on present evidence – as Professor Callum Roberts of the University of York will explain in a speech at the Zoological Society of London on the 17 June – it will be worse than useless, giving the illusion of protection while offering virtually none.

The UK is fortunate to be surrounded by some of the most productive seas on the planet. They have nourished us and promoted our wellbeing for thousands of years. However, in the last two centuries, the expansion and industrialisation of fishing has triggered a transformation in the sea that has accelerated towards the present. Worrying trends include decreased abundance and variety of life, collapse of fisheries and the near disappearance of large species like skates, Angel sharks, Bluefin tuna and Wolffish. According to recent findings from Professor Roberts’ research group at the University of York, trawl fisheries in England and Wales are 25 times less productive than they were in the 1860s.

These losses are happening as the sea is affected by change from development, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Despite growing recognition that our seas need better management, current policy falls far short, affording too little protection and failing to address the major causes of harm. In his talk, Professor Roberts will describe how our seas once were, what they have become and what it will take to recover the richness, vitality and spectacle that are being lost.

The UK Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009 (alongside separate Acts in Scotland and Northern Ireland) was designed to give UK seas far greater protection. A central plank of this legislation is the creation of a nationwide network of Marine Conservation Zones which is intended to recover depleted and damaged habitats and wildlife. But, according to Professor Roberts, if the present course is followed, this ambition cannot be achieved.

This month the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps featuring five fish that support productive, sustainable fisheries, and five that were once abundant but are now endangered by overfishing. The endangered species are Common skate, Sturgeon, Spiny dogfish, Wolffish and Conger eel. Extraordinarily, only Common skate and Spiny dogfish are subjects of official Biodiversity Action Plans which aim to identify threats to endangered species and actions required to help them recover. Neither plan acknowledges their spectacular historic declines in UK seas.

At present there is no ambition to recover populations of these or many other depleted fish species using Marine Conservation Zones or any other form of protected area. Instead, according to Professor Roberts, the stated conservation target for many Marine Conservation Zones is to ‘maintain’ habitats in their present damaged and depleted state and allow continued exploitation of the fish that inhabit them. Setting such an unjustified, unambitious and inconsequential target is a convenient excuse to do nothing.

“At a minimum, all Marine Conservation Zones should be protected in full from damaging mobile fishing gears,” he said. “Without such protection they are mere ‘paper parks’ and will do nothing for marine wildlife. Until now, most of the few areas currently in line for protection from mobile fishing gears in other types of protected area are far too small to have any meaningful conservation benefit and will be impossible to enforce”.

Scotland and Northern Ireland are considering their own protected area networks on an extended timescale. But Scottish plans suffer from the same piecemeal, minimalist approach to protection from fishing that is causing English plans to unravel. In Wales, efforts to establish ‘Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones’ (i.e. fully protected from fishing) were shelved in 2012 due to lack of political will.

Professor Roberts says that another gaping hole in present marine conservation policy is that protective measures planned for Marine Conservation Zones are expected to be voluntary. Defending this approach, the Government cites the Hampton Principles which state that voluntary (i.e. cheaper) measures should be used where possible. But Professor Roberts contends that there is ample evidence that voluntary measures are highly prone to breakdown. For example, in Devon’s Lyme Bay, Defra had to replace a voluntary protection scheme for reef habitats with a statutory closure to trawling and dredging in 2008 after it was proven that mobile fishing gears were causing serious damage to a Special Area of Conservation established under the EU Habitats Directive. Several regional Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, also a product of the 2009 Marine Act and the bodies responsible for management of English and Welsh seas to six nautical miles offshore, have recently acknowledged the need for legal protection. They have passed bylaws to protect other Special Areas of Conservation from trawling and dredging.

A simple fix could put Marine Conservation Zones back on track to protect UK seas and thereby rescue years of effort by thousands of people at millions of pounds’ expense. “The kick start for recovery so desperately needed in UK seas could begin without further delay if all Marine Conservation Zones are fully protected from dredging and trawling, and a significant fraction are made off limits to any form of fishing,” Professor Roberts said.


Further information:

  • In numbers:
  • 2009: The year in which the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act was passed.
  • 2012: The target year for establishment of the Marine Conservation Zone network in England and Wales.
  • 127: The number of Marine Conservation Zones proposed to the Government for the English part of the network by stakeholder groups.
  • 65: The number of fully protected Reference Areas proposed to the Government for the English part of the network by stakeholder groups.
  • 27: The number of English Marine Conservation Zones eventually established in 2013.
  • 0: The number of fully protected ‘Reference Areas’ established in 2013.
  • 37: The number of additional Marine Conservation Zones currently under consideration for English seas by Defra.
  • 0: The amount of new protection from damaging activities so far given to Marine Conservation Zones.
  • Callum Roberts is Professor of Marine Conservation in the Environment Department at the University of York and author of Ocean of Life: How our Seas are Changing (Penguin, 2012).
  • He will give the annual Zoological Society of London ‘Stamford Raffles’ Lecture at 7pm on the 17 of June. From 2009 to 2012, Professor Roberts was a member of the Defra Science Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Areas, which oversaw the development of the original design for the Marine Conservation Zone network in England.

Explore more news

Media enquiries

David Garner
Head of Media Relations

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153