Marine Protected Areas

Proposed UK legislation will leave two thirds of critical Marine Protected Areas unprotected

Written by Oceanographic Staff

Following the announcement of byelaws to protect 13 further offshore Marine Protected Areas in English waters, a new report by the Marine Conservation Society reveals that more needs to be done to fully protect the UK’s diverse MPAs.

On Saturday, 14 May, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) announced a consultation for byelaws to protect 13 offshore Marine Protected Areas in English waters. This is in addition to the four byelaws that ban bottom-towed fishing gear from four offshore MPAs including Dogger Bank which will come into action on 13 June.

The Marine Conservation Society’s experts analysed the remaining MPAs in need of proper protection, identifying 16 of ‘critical importance’ by analysing fishing data, carbon storage potential, habitat sensitivity and MPA conservation objectives.

Of the sites identified as ‘critically important’, the South-West Deeps (East) Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) received the highest score of all sites, making it the most critical for protection. This site – approximately 190 km southwest of the Land’s End peninsula – has not been included in the latest consultation.

The area is vital for carbon storage and is a biodiversity hot spot, experiencing a summer plankton bloom each year bringing wildlife to the area. The Marine Conservation Society’s analysis found that, on average, the area experiences over 5,000 hours of bottom trawling each year. The site has the potential to store up to 1.7 million tonnes of organic carbon; the same amount of carbon as that emitted by over 1 million return flights from London to Sydney.

Just five of the 13 proposed byelaws are deemed ‘critically important’ in line with the charity’s analysis. The report further found that half of the 16 critically important MPAs experienced disturbance such as seabed trawling on over 90% of the total ‘protected’ area.

“Many of the sites of critical importance for protection were not initially designated for their carbon storage potential. However, this added element makes ocean protection even more vital. The huge volumes of carbon which can, and should, be stored by these vast Marine Protected Areas could be put at risk by countless hours of fishing, where vessels indiscriminately drag nets along the seabed. As we face twin climate and biodiversity crises, it’s of the utmost importance that we allow these sites to recover,” said Frith Dunkley, MPA Researcher at the Marine Conservation Society.

The Marine Conservation Society’s Marine UnProtected Areas campaign is calling for protection, at long last, of England’s offshore MPAs designated to protect the seabed which is vital for absorbing and storing carbon, buffering the effects of climate change, and supporting biodiversity.

When damaging fishing gear like bottom trawls and dredges are permitted to fish in these MPAs, the health of the planet is compromised; preventing the recovery of ecosystems already lost to decades of exploitation and limiting the seabed’s ability to store carbon and combat the effects of the climate crisis.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, MPA Specialist at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “Our new analysis represents a clear path for the Government to take in protecting our seas. We’ve found 16 sites of critical importance. It’s disappointing to see that just 5 of the 13 proposed byelaws being consulted on now are those we’ve identified as critically important. The four byelaws, due to be in place from 13 June, are a step in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go to achieve protection of 40 sites with management measures as promised by UK Government by 2024.”

You can read the Marine Conservation Society’s full analysis here.

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here.
Photography courtesy of Ocean Image Bank / Shannon Moran and Ellen Cuylaerts.

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