Saving our seas

Why the National Trust is backing the call for 127 Marine Conservation Zones

On Monday 25th February the National Trust will be joining with the Marine Conservation Society at their Westminster Rally, calling for the government to create a coherent and extensive network of Marine Conservation Zones. Phil Dyke, Coast and Marine Adviser for the National Trust takes up the story as to why the National Trust is backing the call for better protection of our most important marine environments:

The National Trust owns and manages over 700 miles of coastline around England, Wales and Northern Ireland on behalf of the nation. An ownership that includes important marine habitats that have long deserved recognition and protection by the state.

I was closely involved with the development of the Marine Conservation Zone project from 2007 and indeed the National Trust contributed to the early funding of the fledgling project in a belief that there was an urgent need in the UK to up our game on marine conservation. I also worked alongside the government and other NGOs on the development of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, a genuinely ambitious piece of legislation that brings with it both the tools to create MCZs and places a requirement on the administration to deliver.

A long view along the coast at Birling Gap, part of the Seven Sisters cliffs range, East Sussex

A long view along the coast at Birling Gap.

It can be hard to imagine what MCZs might look like (a sense that they are distant and under water) so for me it helps perhaps to focus on one special place that is up for designation as an MCZ and in which the National Trust has an important interest. This most iconic chalk cliff includes Beachy Head and the Severn Sisters. A geological and geomorphological wonderland where soft chalk cliffs give way to flinty beaches, rasping and rounding as the pebbles slide back and forth in the surf. At the bottom of the beach low tides expose tantalising glimpses of the chalk ledges that form the main feature of the MCZ; home to a host of marine wildlife and thrill to children of all ages enjoying some rock pooling. More than 300,000 people visit Birling Gap each year and get the chance to interact with this amazing and inspirational inshore marine environment – their MCZ.

In our view the creation of the Marine Conservation Zones is a long-awaited opportunity to give the amazing and, in every sense, vital coastal and marine habitats found at places like Birling Gap the same sort of protection that land based sites have enjoyed for decades. However we are concerned that the government, having worked through an exemplary stakeholder led process to identify these sites, is now back-tracking on the intention of the Marine and Coastal Access Act, and is not giving the waters around the English coast the protection they need.

The National Trust's responsibilities go beyond our boundaries.

The National Trust’s responsibilities go beyond our boundaries.

Birling Gap was originally one part of a proposed network of 127 MCZs recommended to government by the myriad of stakeholders that contributed to the MCZ project. But alas it seems now that the government’s ambition to create a representative network of MCZs in English waters is faltering. The Consultation now includes just 31 MCZs – less than 25% of the network envisaged. An increasing number of people from all the sectors that contributed to the MCZ project are asking the government to revitalise its ambition by creating a genuinely representative127 MCZ network.

Having requested and received the ‘best available evidence’ from stakeholders involved in the 4 regional MCZ projects, the government is now insisting on unrealistic levels of ‘best evidence’ before sites will be considered. By moving the goalposts only 31 of the 127 recommended MCZs (less than 25%) are currently out for consultation. Many of the 96 MCZs rejected are at immediate risk of deterioration and damage.

The National Trust’s view is that the government has a duty to require its agencies to use existing legal mechanisms to protect all 127 of these special marine places until formal designation as MCZ can be achieved. If we wait until all of the evidence is gathered and a lengthy designation process is implemented we risk damage to these underwater habitats and the creatures that call them home.

Close up of a young, female, grey seal basking on a beach on the Farne Islands in Northumbria

Effective legislation for the protection of our seas has never been so close, yet so threatened.

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