Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) 

Post by: Dee White
25 January 2013

(Some basic facts about this delicate problem)

What are they?

MCZs are sea areas where marine life and habitats are protected. Although wild life on land has been protected since the National Park Act in 1949, it was not until 1979 that a number of marine areas were set up to protect birds and habitats, and in 2009 the Marine and Coastal Access Act was introduced, proposing the creation of additional "marine protection zones" around the offshore waters of England and Wales. These would be different from existing conservation areas, concentrating on areas of the shore and seabed which are in danger from outside influences such as dredging, trawling, anchoring and diving. Similar schemes are proposed for Scotland and Northern Ireland and they will exist alongside European marine sites, for example:

  • SACs – Special Areas of Conservation
  • SPAs – Special Protected Areas
  • SSSIs – Site of Special and Scientific Interest
  • Ramsar sites – Wetlands Use and Management

They will together form a network of marine protected areas.

MCZs are intended to be large enough and close enough together to support whole working communities of marine wildlife and will protect areas containing nationally rare and threatened species and habitats. At the same time they will consider social and economic factors as well as the best available scientific knowledge.

How will this be achieved?

During the last three years there has been widespread consultation by four regional projects, 127 areas have been identified as possible zones and these have been published by Defra. This consultation, involving many sea users and marine conservationists, was unusual in that the responsibility of deciding where the zones would be and how they would be set up was in the hands of the public rather than the government. The RYA in particular has worked closely with the organisations to make sure that the case for safe anchorages and the freedom to navigate our waters are not compromised. In 2013, after a 3 month public consultation, the government will decide which of these areas to make into definite conservation zones. The likelihood is that they will approach the project in phases and that the first phase will involve only 31 sites, with no definite timetable for the remainder. This has upset many conservationists including the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) who feel that delaying the creation of more MCZs will seriously endanger sea habitats. They also feel that many areas deserving of conservation have been left out of the original list, such as Flamborough and Cromer. A petition of nearly 250,000 signatures is to be presented to the government in order to try to speed up the decision making. While the sites of the proposed zones have been published, the details about what will actually happen on the ground (or perhaps on the water) is being left to individual marine management organisations (MMOs) who are expected to seek to implement voluntary measures where possible. By omitting these details from the public consultation there will be much confusion about what effect the measures will have on both the local communities and the boating fraternity. How can you express an opinion in a consultation if you don't know what the details are?

How will this affect the boating community?

While most would agree that conservation is an excellent concept, there are nevertheless important implications for the leisure industry, where activities such as sailing and fishing may well be restricted. The proposed zones are in some of our most popular sailing, boating and anchoring areas, so while ministers have assured the sailing community that en-route sailing is not likely to be affected, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will be able to anchor as freely as they have done in the past. The popular Studland Bay, just outside Poole Harbour, has been the subject of controversy. Conservationists wish to protect the area's seahorse population by reducing anchoring damage and have established a temporary voluntary no-anchoring zone there, which the ministers will be monitoring closely. Another "at risk" area is the popular anchorage of Newtown Creek. The harbour here contains large quantities of native oysters which, it is claimed, may be damaged by anchoring boats, as is the shellfish harvesting in the same area. Other threatened species which they hope to protect include the 400 year old ocean quahog (an edible clam), the strangely named trembling sea mat (an aquatic invertebrate looking more like a plant than an animal) and various types of jellyfish, rays, anemones and corals.

One MCZ does already exist, around the coast of Lundy, an islet off North Devon. This became a voluntary marine nature reserve in 1971 and 15 years later it achieved statutory status. Here the conservation has worked well, with sailors respecting the habitats of grey seals, lobsters, sponges and coral which abound there. There are also many SSSIs around the coasts of the British Isles, such as the Wash on the East Coast where wading birds, salt marshes and mudflats are protected.

Due to the damage caused by traditional mooring chains, the benefits of less damaging eco-moorings are being considered. There are various types on the market which claim to be less intrusive to sensitive habitats, but these have not yet been tested in the UK so it is not yet clear how effective they would be.

Providing extra mooring buoys in sensitive areas to minimize anchoring could well result in vessels being made to pay for their moorings instead of having free anchoring facilities. Extra buoys could also encourage visitors, who do not like anchoring, to visit certain areas.

What is being done to protect the rights of boaters?

The RYA is fighting to keep the rights of the boating fraternity alive. They are not against conservation but are trying to represent the interests of water users. They have been involved in the consultations from the beginning, helping to make sure that sailors' views were heard and scrutinising the scientific evidence which was put forward by the conservationists. They are also trying to make sure that there are alternatives in place, such as a choice of different anchoring sites and installation of ecologically friendly mooring buoys in the sensitive areas. These would obviously come at a cost and with implications as to management, insurance and maintenance.

The Cruising Association has also been keeping an eye on the developments to make sure that there is not unreasonable regulation. Other boaters have set up their own lobby groups to provide a platform for people to air their views.

What about policing?

No decisions have yet been made as to how the zones will be managed and policed by the Marine Management Organisations. Many believe that the voluntary system currently existing around Lundy should be the way forward and the RYA is backing this idea.

Is there a case against MCZs?

  • There are people who argue that in view of the fact that sailors have been anchoring in some of these areas for decades, with few genuine complaints from conservationists, the habitats don't actually need protection.
  • The proposals to ban navigation aids such as buoyage from the conservation zones have drawn criticism from the RYA on the grounds of navigational safety.
  • Another safety issue is that if ports of refuge are turned into anchoring free zones, the safety of sailors seeking shelter from sudden changes in the weather will be compromised. Irish Sea ports such as Dale, South Haven on Skomer and Bardsey are examples of potentially lifesaving refuges which may have their anchoring facilities limited. Studland Bay, Osborne Bay and Alum Bay in South East England are all popular anchorages and ports of refuge where potential restrictions are causing concern.
  • Racing sailors are anxious that many of their navigational race markers will be disallowed, causing an adverse effect on their sport.
  • Several MPs have expressed concerns about the MCZs. Examples include the potential adverse effect on island life on the Isle of Wight together with the impact on residents, visitors and businesses. Other concerns have been made about the proposals affecting the Fal Estuary to protect its slow growing coral. The estuary is an important area for recreational boating and is a vital venue for the seasonal racing in Falmouth Harbour.

So – what happens next?

We wait for the government to make up their minds which of the conservation zones will be implemented first, hopefully safe in the knowledge that all has been done to protect not only sea species and habitats, but also sailors and their habitats. I feel that our case has been well represented and that some small inconvenience is worth the sacrifice to protect our natural heritage. We must be vigilant, however, to make sure that no restrictions are made in haste, without considering all sides of the case. In the meantime let us enjoy our sailing, while seeking to conserve the wonderful marine life that helps to make it so enjoyable.

Author – Dee White

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