A Layman’s Guide to Marine Reserves

Why we need them, and how we establish them — a layman’s guide.

Chances are that if you’ve made it this far to the MARINET website then you already know that the seas surrounding these islands are in a state of crisis. Fish stocks from the Irish Sea to the North Sea are in collapse – cod alone plummeted from a spawning population of 250,000 tonnes in the 1970s to one of only 40,000 in 2001 prompting the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), from whom these figures are quoted, to recommend a total ban on cod fishing in 2004. Such a ban still does not exist. As a result cod, along with herring, mackerel and common skate to name just a few, have seen their populations plummet as UK seas are stripped of fish.

The problem has at its core a fundamental difference between our attitude to terrestrial ecosystems and our attitude to marine ecosystems.

The food that comes from the land is farmed – not always sustainably or with due regard for the environment, but farmed nonetheless – which of course means that it is understood that when we repeatedly take something from the land, be that animal or vegetable, there must be a balanced return of nutrients to the land. Furthermore we have learned that healthy countryside, from garden to field, has a wide variety of organisms living on it. This biodiversitybiodiversity Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals. ensures that all the natural cycles so essential to life can continue, and makes the whole system more resilient to “shocks” such as diseases or sudden and catastrophic changes in the weather.

Unfortunately, however limited our application of this wisdom to the land, we hardly apply it at all to the seas. As a result the seas are effectively mined of fish with precious little thought given to their capacity to regenerate their populations. No respect is given to the integrity of the sea-floor and the marine creatures that live there, and no consideration is given to the other animals of the seas that also depend upon this naturally rich ecosystem, such as seals, whales and dolphins.

Whilst the marine world may be a dark, cold and alien environment to us warm blooded land dwellers the sea, particularly in the relatively shallow continental shelf that surrounds the UK, is a complex and productive environment. The sunlit surface of the sea is rich with small marine plants and animals, known as phytoplanktonphytoplankton Microscopic marine plants, usually algae. These microscopic plants are at the base of the food chain, and are the food of zooplankton (microscopic marine animals). Note: phytoplankton are microscopic plants, and zooplankton are microscopic animals. and zooplanktonzooplankton Zooplankton form the group of tiny animals such as minuscule jellyfish and rotifers present in the marine environment. They are a major source of food for those higher up the food chain, and their numbers relate directly as a good indicator to the nutrient enrichment of the sea of the area. Note: phytoplankton are microscopic plants, and zooplankton are microscopic animals.. Many of these are eaten by larger animals swimming in the surface waters but many others die and sink, along with their dead predators, to the sea floor. There they provide food for the creatures of the sea floor, such as prawns and lobsters, bottom dwelling fish, the larvae of other fish, shellfish, and a phenomenal range of marine invertebrates. These animals may in turn be fed upon by larger and still larger creatures as the energy and nutrients move up what are known as “trophic levels”, forming what is known as a “trophic web” of inter-dependent sea life.

The top of the web is where the animals most conspicuous to us can be found – the whales and dolphins, the seals, the large fish such as cod, tuna and sharks, and birds such as kittiwakes. Thus it is here that we see the effects of over-fishing, of destructive bottom trawling and dredging, of pollution from the dumping of wastes which result from oil, gas and aggregate extraction, coastal development and the ceaseless traffic of shipping.

There is little doubt that kittiwake breeding failures in the 1990s in Scotland have been traced back to the stripping of sand eels from the North Sea. At the same time the incidence of pollution related disease in seals has risen considerably and large fish and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are disappearing from our waters not just because of over-fishing and fishing “by-catch”, but also because the species they prey upon no longer exist in sufficient quantities to support their populations.

The situation is depressing but it is not one without hope of improvement.

Clearly the current system of fishing quotas and regulations is failing to protect the seas. Consequently new and possibly drastic action will be required. However this does not mean that we will have to give up fish and abandon the sea altogether. Given time and proper management marine ecosystems have shown themselves to be capable of impressive recovery.

That time and management cannot be and is not being provided by the 100 or so Acts of Parliament which govern the use of the seas, or by the Common Fisheries Policy which forces fishermen to throw often more than half a catch’s worth of dead and dying fish to the sea – the “by-catch” – so that they don’t break quota rules. Instead what is required is a network of marine reserves in which there is a total ban on all fishing and industrial activity.

Marine Reserves : a serious solution to a serious problem.

What are marine reserves?

Ocean sanctuaries, marine parks, marine protected areas, no-take zones, marine conservation areas – the choice of names is nearly endless. The essential common thread is that a marine reserve is an area of the sea and its surrounding environment that has been granted some degree of protection from human exploitation.

Reserves must be big enough, they must be sensibly located and they must be effectively protected. These are all considerations that are themselves based upon a complex of biological, physical and social factors including: the types of species that inhabit the area, the life-stages of the species that inhabit the area, the importance of those species to the local human population and the ability of the State to enact proper protection of the reserve.

MARINET would like to see at least 30% of UK waters within 200 nautical miles of the coast – the UK Economic Zone – given over to marine reserves. This figure of 30% is an essential minimum. Further, these reserves need to be located in the right places, be of sufficient size and spread, be inter-connected and, most importantly, forbid all types of extractive and polluting activity.

We are not alone in thinking this – many prominent environmental NGOs agree, and the model that we advocate is the one which has been proposed by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in their 25th Report, January 2005.

The Benefits of Marine Reserves.

Previously it has been difficult to prove the benefits of reserves and so most of the arguments in their favour were derived from theoretical work. This was partly because reserves were not all that common and partly because those that did exist had not been around long enough for us to be sure that they were working. These days there is much more evidence of reserves working in practice and so we know exactly what benefits they can bring.

Reserves produce more fish.

In Tasmania, Australia, there is a set of reserves based around some coastal islands. At the largest reserve around an island called “Maria” there has been an increase in both the number of fish and the number of types of fish since it was set up.

Similarly more and bigger crabs are now found at reserves in Moreton Bay in Queensland, Australia, and in the three oldest reserves in Northern New Zealand – Cape Rodney-Okakari Point, Te Whanganui a Hei and Tawharanui. Here snapper are 14 times as common as they are outside the reserve, and rock lobsters are nearly 4 times more common. Moreover because the snapper and rock lobster are no longer hunted there are other knock-on or “cascade” effects. For example, the number of sea urchins has been reduced to a population density similar to that which had existed before over-fishing, and this in turn has meant that kelp forests that had been over-grazed by the urchins have been able to recover. These changes, in turn, have resulted in a more diverse and productive habitat than bare open rocks. Consequently more and more different species are now able to live there.

A similar effect has been observed in reserves of the Georges Bank, an oval-shaped shoalshoal A sandbank or sandbar that makes the water shallow, 240km long by 120km wide, that lies 120km off the coast of New England. There the recovery of the benthic habitats, now protected from bottom-trawling, has led to an explosion in biodiversity, including echinodermsechinoderms Spiny-skinned animals which live in the sea, their bodies generally displaying radial symmetry e.g. starfish, sea-urchins, brittlestars, sea-cucumbers. These animals have a "water vascular system" which communicates with the surrounding sea water and operates, by means of hydrostatic pressure, rows of radially arranged suckers. These suckers are known as "tube-feet"., sea-fans and hydroidshydroids Hydroids, or sea-firs, are plant-like animals. They resemble fir-like plants, but are actually the simplest of stinging-celled animals. The cells of these animals contain capsules (called cnidae), and these capsules contain a long hollow, coiled thread which uncoils and shoots out under water pressure when the cell is triggered by touch or water pressure. These threads, whose precise characteristics vary according to species, capture the prey.. This, once again, has enhanced production of commercial species such as flounder and haddock.

The more time passes, the clearer it is that reserves produce more fish, not only in terms of numbers of fish, but also of fish species, of fish “biomassbiomass The amount of living matter. This is therefore a different measure to numbers of organisms. So, for example, there is much more biomass in 1 elephant than there is in 1000 fleas and there may be more biomass in 100 large cod than you would find in 150 small (because of over fishing) cod.” and also in the size of the individual fish. A study of 89 different academic papers on reserves has shown that, on average, all of these four measures record higher in reserves compared to the waters outside them. Of course, this is great for the environment, but if increased numbers of fish are only found inside the reserves then they are not much good for fishermen. What is needed is “spill-over” from the reserve into surrounding waters.

Marine reserves benefit waters outside the reserve.

To begin with, evidence of spill-over was hard to demonstrate but it is now being seen more and more often. Part of the reason for this difficulty is that marine reserves can take several years before the populations of the marine life they are protecting – be they fish, or lobsters or any other species – build up to a level where they begin to move out of the reserve in response to a need to find new sources of food. Examples now abound, from the reef fish at Apo Island in the Philippines to the crabs of Moreton Bay, Australia; from fished species in Mombasa Reef Park in Kenya, to crabs in the Sea of Japan and bream in New Zealand.

Encouragingly, five years after their creation, a network of reserves in St. Lucia, USA, has caused such a spill-over into adjacent waters that the fish-take there has risen by between 46% and 90%, depending on the type of gear the fishermen have used. Often the fact that spill-over is happening is most clearly evident above water – by the sight of fishermen at work along the edge and borders of the reserves. Satellite photos over Georges Bank show scallop fishing vessels clustered around the edges of the closed areas.

It is nonetheless important to remember that recovery does not happen over-night, and some researchers believe it may take up to 20 years for recovery to reach such an extent that spill-over begins to occur. The sad fact is that the seas have, in most cases, been degraded to such an extent that years are needed for the fish to grow large enough, and for the diversity of marine plants, animals and their physical habitats to become re-established sufficiently for real recovery to become apparent.

Reserves produce bigger fish…

Here are some examples:
Five years after New Zealand’s Long Island-Kokomohua reserve was created, 35% of blue cod were more than thirty-three cm long, compared with only 1% being that size or larger outside the reserve.
In the Tasmanian “Maria” reserve fish larger than 32.5cm long became three times as common six years after the reserve was created.
In Florida’s reserves a similar story is told: the Everglades National Park, now 20 years old, has seen the most commonly sized grey snapper increase to 25-40cm, compared with 15-20cm outside the reserves, and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge supplies increasing numbers of world record-sized fish to neighbouring waters. In fact within a 200km stretch of coast around the reserves – that’s just 13% of Florida’s waters – anglers caught 62% of record breaking black drum fish, 54% of red drum and 50% of record breaking sea trout.

…and bigger fish produce more fish.

The good news about these examples isn’t just that bigger fish, when they stray into fishable areas, provide more and better prey for the fisherman and ultimately for the fish eater. Even more important is that fact that big fish produce more and better eggs.
For example, in New Zealand’s reserves lobster egg production in deep water sites increased by 9.1% per year, and that of snapper increased by an enormous eighteen times.

The problem for fisheries is that no technology yet exists that can avoid catching large fish. Instead the opposite happens – small fish are more likely to get away than large ones. It is therefore, if you think about it from the fish’s point of view, more sensible to stop growing, and instead spend the energy on making eggs before you get caught, than it is to put your energy into growing big enough to make lots of good eggs, only to find that you get caught in a net before you have even laid one.

Of course fish don’t make this decision consciously, but the laws of evolution mean that selectively removing large fish from the population causes the fish to evolve to become smaller at maturity. That way they get to start reproducing before they are so big they get caught, thereby ensuring that their genesgene A string of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule that is the fundamental unit of inheritance, so it is variations in the make up of this molecule in the gene that controls variations in an organism's appearance and behaviour. Genes are found in the nucleus of the organism's cells. are passed on. Because of this large female cod, that is those over 1.5m, are now very rare. Since a large cod lays as up to eight times as many eggs as a conspecificconspecific Of the same species half her size, what we are doing is not only reducing the size of cod in the seas but also their ability to reproduce and replenish their populations. However in a properly sized and distributed network of reserves this trend is reversed, to everyone’s benefit.

With the improved fecundity of the reserve’s animals comes another type of spillover – that of eggs, larvae and immature individuals. The biggest success of the Georges Bank reserves is the scallop fishery. There densities of legal sized (that is big enough to harvest) scallop are 9-14 times greater than those found outside the reserve in the fished areas. These scallop-rich reserves have been shown to send a rich flow of larvae out of the reserves into fishable areas where the fishing boats cluster. In Chile protection of squat lobster habitat has led to not only a dramatic increase in its biomass within the reserve but also to the spread of the species over more than 50km into areas previously severely depleted by the fishery. This is being credited to the spread of larvae from the reserve.

Reserves provide insurance against stock problems outside the protected area.

Natural populations of any species vary over time – this is called stochasticstochastic Involving chance or probability, often referring to random "natural" variation variability – and this is why even in healthy seas you might expect better catches some years than others.

However when the ecosystem is stressed, such as occurs when over-fishing, pollution or habitat destruction is occurring, the extent to which the populations of local species varies can increase a great deal, even falling so far that it is not able to recover again. This is clearly not a good thing for a fishing industry hoping for some reliable projection of costs and profits for the season ahead. So, reserves can act as insurance by “buffering” against wild changes in population sizes.

They do this partly by ensuring that there is always a well-sized stock of local species to replenish those outside the reserve area when these populations have fallen. As we have seen reserves, such as those at Maria and Georges Bank, are characterised by much more complex ecosystems in which very many species interact with each other, and as a result reserves are better able to weather major shocks such as disease or climate change. The full range of reasons for this are explained below in the section on reserve size.

Many critics of reserves claim that there is no evidence that they work, but the evidence, some of it described here, is now overwhelmingly in favour of the establishment of reserves for the benefits they bring both to fisheries and the many other species which they protect. This evidence comes from the day to day experience of people living by and from the sea, from peer-reviewed academic papers, and even from satellite photographs of fishermen gathering along the borders of marine reserves making the most of their increased productivity.

Even so some people will, as with climate change, always argue against both the bodies of science and experience that say a new approach is needed, and they continue to claim that there is no evidence that marine reserves show real benefits. Such argument is frustrating and sad, but it prompts us to turn the debate on its head and ask if there is any reliable evidence at all that the current morass of laws and quotas are doing anything to improve the health of our seas. And to that question, the overwhelming body of evidence clearly indicates that the answer is no.

The importance of the marine reserve’s size

Is the size of reserves important? The short answer is, yes.

Go too large and you will start to lose the benefits of reserves, but for now that is hardly something we need to worry about. Of the few marine reserves in existence at the moment – only 0.5% of the seas are currently protected, of which 95% still allow fishing and recreation – many suffer from being too small.

One such example is the San Diego-La Jolla Ecological Reserve in California. This reserve is now 30 years old and thus as old as they come. Yet, despite possessing some of the wonderful kelp forests for which this region is famous, and despite being a “no-take” marine reserve, its only serious success has been to increase the populations of a few sessile and residential species, whilst the majority of fished species have continued to decrease in population. This is because the reserve is too small, with the result that it is unable to control the wider influences on its ecosystem. The situation is not helped by another unfortunate fact of small reserves – people simply don’t realise that they are there and so fail to respect them.

Across the Pacific Ocean at the Maria reserve in Tasmania, we can see again that the large reserves are much more effective than the small ones. Researchers who have compared four reserves there with the areas outside the reserves found that the Maria reserve, which with a 7km coastline is the largest reserve, had both more and larger fish, more seaweed and a greater variety of species of both plant and animal than the smaller island reserves. Moreover they noticed that not only were there more species in greater numbers in the reserve but that the relative number of individuals of each species was also different. In other words, the floral and faunalfauna The animals characteristic of a region, period, or special environment communities inside the reserves were qualitatively different to those in the unprotected areas because fishing and/or other human activities had fundamentally changed the nature of the marine ecosystem outside the reserves. In terms of numbers, there is an order of magnitude more rock lobster inside the Maria reserve, and two orders (that’s 100s of times) more of the bastard trumpeter fish. However, significantly, these effects are either less pronounced or simply not evident in the smaller reserves (2km and 1km in length).

The reasons reserves have to be of a sufficient size have to do with the amount of space that species need to stay alive and reproduce.

Some species – sessile species – sit in one place and filter their food from the water. These may still benefit from the protected habitat of small reserves because their food comes to them rather than the other way around, hence the sessile species benefited in San Diego-La Jolla Ecological Reserve. But even these will suffer in small reserves from the knock-on effects of what’s happening outside, be that pollution, suffocation caused by aggregate (sand and gravel) extraction plumes, starvation, disease or any other factor that disrupts the ecological balance amongst species and their environment outside the reserve.

However, for free moving species the need for space is more pressing. To cite a terrestrial parallel, a pack of lions needs many miles of bush to support sufficient populations of its prey. Similarly, many fish need to be able to roam greater distances through intact and productive environments – a need far greater than a small reserve is able to afford them.

And, it’s not just about food. A commonly used phrase in fisheries management is “minimum viable population” (MVP). In other words, there must be enough fish for the fish to be able to find each other. That may sound silly, but in the vastness of the ocean not being able to find a mate can become a serious problem.

This may be one of the reasons why cod, having been fished to “commercial extinction” off the Newfoundland coast, have not recovered to their previous population size once fishing has been restricted. In short, they simply don’t come across each often enough. It should be noted that many species, such as cod, develop from eggs that are scattered far and wide across the ocean. Few of these eggs ever make it to maturity – only 1 in a million Atlantic cod eggs make it to adulthood – which means that growing up in the open oceans can be a lonely business for young cod. In addition, as they grow they require more space to hunt in, which means that competition between species and individuals of the same species will soon force fish to leave the protection of small reserves . . . and once again fall foul of the fishing net.

There is also the need for genetic diversity, or variation in the genes that an organism carries. All sexual (meaning there are both male and females, as opposed to “asexual”, in which there is only one sex) animals vary genetically from one to the other, and this is reflected in their appearance, size, behaviour and so on. One reason for this is that by varying the characteristics of your young you make it harder for parasites, disease and so forth to attack them. So if a disease does come along which kills all individuals with a similar genetic pattern, the fact that your offspring have a varying genetic pattern means some of them may survive the disease.

The same, incidentally, could be said of changes in climate, predators, prey and so on – individuals with a certain genetic pattern may be more likely to survive than individuals with different genetic patterns, simply because genes dictate body and behaviour. Consequently the problem with small reserves is that the reserve cannot support a big enough population to ensure there is good genetic variability. This in turn means that when a disease comes along there is only a small chance that some individuals will have the right genes to survive the disease. Hence in small reserves there is a greater risk that the whole population may be catastrophically reduced or even wiped out completely.

Therefore, the MVP is the smallest size that a population of any species can realistically be if it is to have a good chance of avoiding extinction in the future.

What scientists do is take an estimate of the population and then use computer simulations to calculate the odds as to whether that population will survive all the shocks that nature will throw at it (such as disease, in-breeding, and climate change) over the next hundred years. This is a bit like throwing dice to see how many times your numbers come up. If the population survives 95% of the time (i.e. only goes extinct 5%, or one in every twenty times), then this is the MVP (though different time periods are used for different species).

The problem with small reserves, and of course the problem with no reserves, is that populations of many species are pushed below their MVPs. When this happens, as is happening now, populations may still be visible – and so you could be forgiven for thinking that things are alright – but in fact be dangerously fragile, and incapable of recovering from a shock should one occur.

Ecologists also talk about resistance and resilience when discussing animal and plant communities. If populations are “resistant” then they are unlikely to be reduced by events such as disease. If they are “resilient” then they may well be reduced by shocks but will nevertheless rebound from them. Populations that are already too small – close to or below the MVP – are not likely to be resilient because once reduced below a certain number of individuals they are not able to recover again.

But it is not just numbers of individuals in one species’ population that is important – the number of different species matters too. This is because biological diversity, or biodiversity to give it its popular name, seems to make the whole community of species more resistant to change and more resilient in recovering from shocks. The reasons for this are complicated and hotly debated but there is general agreement that it has to do with the different “jobs” that different species do. In order for life to exist there must be a continuous recycling of nutrients and energy, and of elements such as carbon and nitrogen. Some species are specifically good at these tasks whilst others are not, but the former may still depend upon the latter to stay alive.

The fact is that these biological systems are fantastically complicated and we really understand very little about how all the species interact with each other and keep everything running smoothly. Even so, it is clear that when we over-fish or when we destroy habitats by bottom trawling or aggregate extraction, or when we poison or pollute our waters, we reduce both the number of species – the biodiversity – and the number of individuals of each species. This means that the whole system is made even more vulnerable to stress, and hence there is a greater likelihood that even more species may go extinct. It is a vicious circle, and the only way to stop it is to ensure that there is a sufficiency of large areas where all species and their habitats are protected – in other words, that there are enough marine reserves.

The Importance of Location and a Network of Reserves.

So, why not just one big reserve?

Well firstly, it’s a question of economics: once you allocate more than a certain area of the seas to reserves the economic benefits are outweighed by the costs of lost fishing grounds, and the increased distance required to travel to the remaining fishing grounds.

Numerous theoretical research papers point to an ideal total reserve area of between 20% and 40%. This, if you look at the areas around existing reserves is, in fact, what is occurring in practice. For example, the Merritt Island reserve in Florida covers 40km², representing 22% of the island waters, and has produced fish growing to sizes and numbers not seen for generations. Another example is the vast 17,000km² George Banks reserve in the Gulf of Maine, representing 25% of the Georges Bank. Here scallop, cod, flounder and haddock have all responded particularly well to the protection afforded by the reserves.

Of course, given the increasingly self-evident advantages of marine reserves, it is also sound common sense that they are spread around our waters so that everyone can benefit from them. Moreover, there are also ecological reasons for spreading reserves into a network instead of concentrating them in one place.

We have already seen the importance of two of these ecological arguments – genetic variation in populations (populations in different parts of the network may vary physically and genetically and therefore differ in their abilities to respond to shocks such as disease); and, variation in the number and type of species (different parts of the network, by having different physical as well as biological features, will be able to support different species and so keep the natural cycles and systems working smoothly).

A further reason for having a wide network of reserves is that many species roam very widely during the course of their lives, and may be particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation at different times and in different places. This applies particularly to the various species of large commercial fish. Critics argue that these fish are simply too big and that the seas they travel through are too far-ranging for reserves to ever be big enough or economically viable to produce the results that the people who champion reserves claim. However, in the Georges Bank, one fisherman reported travelling half the distance he did before the closures whilst still catching nearly twice as much cod. In fact, sensible location of reserves at spawning sites, or in areas where immature individuals collect and grow, can have a disproportionately large beneficial effect on the over-all success of the species. Furthermore, the effects of such reserves can be felt far away: North Sea herring might be far more numerous if their spawning grounds in the English Channel were protected by reserves.

Establishing Marine Reserves. How might marine reserves be set up?

A perfectly reasonable concern for anyone with an interest in the sea would be the questions of how, where and by whom the reserve is to be set up, and what sort of protection it will have?

Such concerns can be answered to some degree by the fact that marine reserves are not new – several countries are already developing extensive reserve networks, Canada being very good example.

National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs) have been established in Canada to ensure a sustainable use of the sea in the protected area. Some parts of the reserved areas are highly protected whilst others allow limited human activity. Canada forbids activities such as mining, dumping and oil or gas exploration, but may allow some traditional fishing activity if the area or the resident species are not especially sensitive. Also, crucially, because the whole ecosystem is considered when deciding where to place these parks, Canadian reserves may include terrestrial features such as wetlands, estuaries and islands, all of which play a part in the life cycles of the marine plants and animals.

This “ecosystem approachecosystem approach An ecosystem-based approach to management represents a new and more strategic way of thinking. It puts the emphasis on a management regime that maintains the health of ecosystems alongside appropriate human use of the marine environment, for the benefit of current and future generations. This requires setting clear environmental objectives both at the general and specific level, basing management of the marine environment on the principles of sustainable development, conservation of biodiversity, robust science, the precautionary principle and stakeholder involvement. Ref, DEFRA, Safeguarding Our Seas, section 1.17 (2002)” is different to the more traditional approach to conservation and fisheries management because the whole system of interacting fish, other animals, plants and physical features is considered instead of just focusing on protecting one or a few species at a time. This recognises the fact that in nature everything is linked. It is not possible to protect only part of the biological system whilst continuing to tamper with the rest of it because, sooner or later, such tampering will affect everything and cause the whole system to change.

There are laws governing how the Canadian NMCAs are set up, and they are contained within the National Marine Conservation Areas Policy (see website link) that is itself guided by the national system plan. In this country an equivalent to the Canadian model could be established by laws incorporated into the proposed draft UK Marine Bill and administered, as MARINET proposes, by a Ministry of the Sea.

In Canada the setting up of an NMCA is a five step process.

To begin with candidate sites are considered in terms of their physical and biological features, along with the kinds of habitat they include and their historical and archaeological features.

Next, experts consider which candidates are the most important in terms of biodiversity, rare species and, crucially, how representative they are of the area.

These considerations are then balanced with the needs of the local users, the extent to which areas are already protected, and other relevant issues.

A further stage is then embarked upon which involves convening public meetings, leading to discussions between the government and local groups and interested parties.

This process culminates in an agreement, after which the NMCA can be set up.

UK and North Atlantic Progress towards the establishment of marine reserves.

Much of the debate about marine management in the UK now includes the term “marine spatial planning” (MSP).

MSP is a proposed planning tool that will ensure that the use of the sea is fair in the sense that it considers the needs of all parties and keeps in mind the future sustainability of the seas. As such, it will provide the framework within which marine reserves can be set up, with the result that MSP can be thought of as similar to the policies and plans that govern how NMCAs are set up in Canada.

Therefore MSP will force planners to take a wide and joined-up view of the sea and its users, balancing the needs of different interests such as fishermen, the navy, off-shore wind farms, miners and marine ecologists, and assigning different priorities to different areas. In this system only the areas best suited and most justifiably required to be marine reserves will be declared so. The “adaptive management principle” would also be applied, meaning that as more is learned about the marine area so the degree and type of protection elected for can change.

Much of the work towards the establishment of marine reserves in the North Atlantic has already been undertaken in various international agreements. The agreements include OSPAROSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic made up of representatives of the Governments of the 15 signatory nations., the EC Natura 2000Natura 2000 A European network of protected sites developed to maintain or restore natural habitats and species of wild flora and fauna to favourable conservation status within the European Union. process established by the EC Habitats and Birds Directive, and the fifth North Sea Conference where ministers made the Bergen Declaration which calls for a network of marine reserves in the North Sea by 2010. The Bergen Declaration was re-affirmed in 2003 by ministers in Bremen where they also pledged to commit 10% of their waters to marine protected areas in an “ecologically coherent network”.

The Prospects for the Future.

So, as you can see, there is a momentum building towards the establishment of marine reserves and plans are already afoot to implement them. It is therefore encouraging to see that legislators have woken up to the need for marine reserves.

However more needs to be done to ensure that properly focused and constituted reserves are actually established, rather than just talked about. At 10%, the figure for the area of territorial waters to be set aside for marine reserves is much too small. The RCEP calls for 30% of UK waters to be given over to marine reserves, and MARINET supports this figure as an essential minimum.

It seems that progress is finally being made towards the establishment of marine reserves, but there is still a long way to go before we can be sure that a comprehensive network of reserves will be large enough, sensibly located and adequately protected to ensure that it will deliver the benefits that marine reserves are capable of delivering.

Everybody can play a part in ensuring that a proper network of reserves is set up and managed. You can do this by writing to your local MP to demand proper support for marine reserves in the forthcoming Marine Bill, by participating in local consultations, and by telling others of the enormous benefits of marine reserves and the urgency with which they are required.

Perhaps the most important points to note are:

  • Firstly, that the establishment of marine reserves should be a consultative process in which anybody can be involved, and all interests are to be considered
  • Secondly, that the system should be flexible, which means that as more is learnt about the protected area so the laws governing its use can be adjusted – they are not set in stone.
  • Thirdly, the ultimate aim of marine reserves is, and must be, to improve the state of the seas, not just for the sake of the environment but also for commercial and leisure purposes.

In conclusion.

Very simply, marine reserves are about ensuring that our legacy to our descendants is one of seas that are, at least as productive and useful to our descendants as they are to us today. Marine reserves are about restoring our seas to their former diversity and health. They are, in short, a powerful instrument for beneficial change.

Therefore let us embrace them, and let us not hesitate to use them.

Author, Julian Kirby, April 2006

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