MPs today highlighted their disappointment with Government’s lack of ambition on creating marine protected areas in domestic waters.
Government must do more to protect vulnerable marine habitats, features and species and better manage existing marine protected areas, the Environmental Audit Committee concluded. However, slow progress on the domestic front was in stark contrast to ambitious moves to designate marine protected areas in the UK Overseas Territories.
The report, ‘Marine Protected Areas Revisited,’ was based on evidence from expert witnesses, including BLUE’s Executive Director Charles Clover. Throughout the inquiry, witnesses highlighted that progress in the UK Overseas Territories has been greater than that in domestic waters. The report notes that “British seabirds off the Chagos Islands are better protected than they would be flying off Cornwall.”
Some of the greatest recent conservation achievements in the world have occurred through protected area designations in the UK Overseas Territories. “The Blue Belt commitment is a huge commitment that Britain needs to live up to,” Charles Clover noted in his evidence to the Committee, “eventually we will have to bring this all back home.” While comparisons between the Overseas Territories and the UK mainland coastline are difficult, more clearly needs to be done in domestic waters.
Whale shark in St. Helena by Attila Frigyesi
The Committee made clear that Government must put in place the next stage of a coherent marine conservation network as soon as possible. “It is worrying and disappointing the Government have still not got their act together on assigning the vulnerable Marine Protected Areas,” Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee said. The Committee noted that delays in designating a larger, more ambitious third tranche of sites are not acceptable and that the Government must not use lack of ‘perfect data’ as an excuse to avoid making further designations.
The Committee stressed that any protected area is only meaningful with effective management, surveillance and monitoring, as highlighted by witness (and BLUE trustee) Professor Callum Roberts who warned in the inquiry against “building a world-class network of paper parks.”
Mary Creagh MP also stated that the “Government needs to focus on monitoring and protecting the current areas rather than moving the goal posts to create unachievable and over complicated demands on the management of susceptible areas. Without effective management, surveillance or monitoring our MPAs are just paper parks.” The Committee also recommended that the Government should consider investing in aerial and seaborne drones for monitoring of MPAs.
Ascension Island waters by Judith Brown
Witnesses also raised important questions about MPA funding. Specific concerns were raised during the inquiry about the implications of leaving the European Union on funding for the UKOTs, as these will no longer be eligible for funding from sources such as the EU’s BEST Initiative. The Committee thus recommends in this report that the Government commits to replacing BEST funding, as suggested by Charles Clover during the enquiry, as well as exploring a variety of further funding opportunities. The report notes that the marine environment in the UKOTs could be further protected by grants derived from the National Lottery, and that no progress has been made on this recommendation since its 2014 report.
Regarding exit from the European Union more broadly, the Committee recommends in its report that the Government transfers all European marine sites into English Law and preserves reporting, monitoring, evaluation and enforcement structures. Another important point is the Government’s decision not to include reference areas within the third tranche of marine conservation zones. The Committee states that it is ‘shocked and disappointed’ at this decision, which will cause problems in assessing impact of protecting areas and therefore in demonstrating their benefits. Finally, the Committee highlights the need across all the above themes for an improved Government communications strategy, noting that poor communication is making designation and enforcement “unnecessarily contentious” where better communication could effectively convey the significant benefits of MPAs.
“The Government needs to put firm plans in place to stop further degradation of our vulnerable ecological systems, before they are destroyed forever,” Mary Creagh said.