The pioneering Marine Conservation Zones scheme under threat

PUBLISHED: 20:49 14 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:44 20 February 2013

Remarkably tropical-looking, blennies can actually be found in most of our larger coastal
rock pool Tompot blenny © Polly Whyte/Earthinfocus

Remarkably tropical-looking, blennies can actually be found in most of our larger coastal rock pool Tompot blenny © Polly Whyte/Earthinfocus

The Marine Conservation Zones were set to bring a new level of protection to wildlife in our seas. But just a few months on, that pioneering protection looks to be threatened, as Tom Marshall of Cheshire Wildlife Trust reports

This year has been one of celebration for Wildlife Trusts. In the North West weve seen half a century of protection for wildlife across Cheshire, Cumbria and Lancashire and across the UK there has been recognition for the founding fathers of the Wildlife Trust movement, which saw the first ever nature reserves established 100 years ago.

It was also hoped this centenary year would welcome a new wave of protection beyond the hedgerows, woodland glades and meadows of our countryside, as the first Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) would be confirmed by the government, securing a network of areas that would safeguard our fragile marine wildlife.

But just a few months from the governments original deadline for announcement, the proposals for a wide network of 127 MCZs now appear to be in choppy water.

With such a broad and high-profile variety of nature reserves on land, its fair to assume that our oceans and the rich natural diversity they support are receiving the same protection. Not so. In reality, just 0.001 per cent of our seas receive any legal protection from damaging activities.

The passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act in November 2009 heavily lobbied for by the Wildlife Trusts looked set to establish a network of ecologically coherent marine protected areas by later this year.

This promise was followed by a multimillion pound consultation of users from all corners of our offshore waters, from fisherman to renewable energy producers, with hundreds of thousands of responses carefully considered to balance the needs of both ecological and economic demands. The result was a map of the places most in need of protection
stretching from Scotland to the Cornish coast and including 19 areas in the Irish Sea.

Its now a year on, the Government has done little with these recommendations, timescales are slipping and our promised network still eludes us, said the North West Wildlife Trusts Marine Conservation Officer Lindsay Sullivan, who is unhappy with the ebbing tide of progress on the MCZ plans.

There is some hope on the horizon however, as a 12-week public consultation on all 127 proposed MCZs including those in the North West, still looks set to take place later this year.

The future of our seas remain in our hands, Lindsay added. At the Wildlife Trusts we havent given up hope and we dont believe those who love our coast and seas should either. The current levels of protection for our coastline include an array of Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of
Conservation and Ramsar sites, many of which focus on estuaries and wetlands, leaving our offshore wildlife and habitats vulnerable and at risk from damage.

Marine Conservation Zones are the new kids on the block, Lindsay said.
Theyre designed to protect seabed habitats and species of national importance.

Each of the 19 recommended MCZs in the Irish Sea has been selected to
protect one or more broad-scale habitats and the species associated with them. Critically, the sites also work cohesively to complement each other along with any existing levels of protection, so the resulting network is truly effective for wildlife.

At the heart of the Irish Sea network of MCZs is an unassuming and perhaps surprising lifeblood mud. The mud of the Irish Sea plays host to a diversity of species comparable to that of rainforests and coral reefs. And, like coral reefs and rainforests, the same mud suffers from exploitation and degradation.

Sea pens, urchins, brittlestars, crab, shrimp and the mighty nephrops (or scampi if youre in your local chip shop) all inhabit the subtidal mud, performing the important engineering roles of both turning over and securing this loose sediment, and are a key link in the food chain for the fish around them.

Buried deep in this glorious mud are creatures like the ocean quahog. Maturing rather leisurely and reaching a ripe old age of 400-years-old (if reports are to be believed), this clam-like mollusc is a key food species for cod and the only known breeding population of quahog in the Irish Sea will be protected if the full MCZ network is put in place. This alone could be a step towards recovery of cod stocks in the Irish Sea.

Renowned nature filmmaker and broadcaster Simon King OBE will visit Manchester next month as part of Cheshire Wildlife Trusts 50th anniversary programme. The former Springwatch presenter and Big Cat Diary stalwart has been the Wildlife Trusts UK president since 2011 and an exciting evening is expected with one of our best-loved TV naturalists. To book your ticket visit or call 01948 820728.

Be a friend

With the consultation on MCZs fast approaching, Cheshire Wildlife Trust is urging people to become friends of MCZs in their area, demonstrating to the Government the need for a full network of protection, not simply a piecemeal approach.

Lindsay Sullivan, the North West Wildlife Trusts Marine Conservation Officer said: Its vital we show the Government that each and every one of the 127 recommended MCZs is important, and that while a few MCZs sprinkled around is a start, it simply wont do the job of protecting the full and very broad range of our marine habitats and species.

It seems were at a critical turning point for UK marine conservation. We have never before, and may never again, have such an opportunity to safeguard the remnants of our once rich marine habitats and wildlife. Preventing any further destruction by creating Marine Conservation Zones is one of the most valuable legacies we can leave for the future.

You will know many of these places, its likely you visit them or you may live near one. Whatever your reasons, now is the time to ensure that the future protection for our seas
isnt simply a drop in the ocean.

To have your say and become a friend of one the 19 proposed Marine Conservation Zones in the Irish Sea, you can visit to sign up and view the nteractive map.

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