Stephen Eades – Why MCZs are failing and the remedy that’s required – Nov 15

The news that the aggregate companies, Lafarge Tarmac and Cemex, are to seek a licence to dredge in the Kingmere Marine Conservation Zone, Sussex, for sand and gravel is disturbing.

Equally disturbing is this question — how could such a proposal conceivably have a legal basis ?

To find the answer we need to go all the way back to the writing of the UK’s Marine and Coastal Access Act (the Marine Act) in 2009. This is the Act which created Marine Conservation Zones (MCZsMCZ Marine Conservation Zone) — the UK’s version of marine reserves.

Before we look at how that Act defines a MCZMCZ Marine Conservation Zone, let’s first consider what the requirements are for a conservation zone to be effective.

On land, if we create a conservation area (nature reserve) we expect all the plants and trees and animals that live there to be protected.

For example, if a nature reserve is created to conserve an ancient woodland we expect all the trees within the reserve’s boundaries to be protected. This is because we recognise that ancient trees do not exist in isolation. They sustain and are sustained by all the other plants and trees (many far younger) and all the animals (including insects and micro-organisms) which live within the area’s boundaries. In other words, we look at the ecology of the reserve as a whole, and recognise the need to protect the ancient woodland’s ecological structure.

Therefore it would be anathema — strictly forbidden — to allow a forester to enter the nature reserve and to cut down all the trees for timber, leaving only the ancient ones. We would regard such an approach as wholly unreasonable, and the people who issued such a licence and those who sought it as criminal, if not insane.

At sea, however, when we create a marine reserve the situation is wholly different. How and why, you might ask?

The answer goes back to the writing of the terms of the 2009 Marine Act.

In 2009 the government did not want to create “true” marine nature reserves. Why — because it shared the view of fishermen and other interests that reserves would restrict their historic “legitimate” commercial activities. So the government sought to create semi-marine nature reserves (MCZs).

They did this by saying that we will create a reserve with boundaries, as on the land, but we will not protect everything within the boundary but rather only certain features — such as a specific species, or a particular type of habitat. This meant that commercial interests, like the fishermen and dredging companies, could still continue to exploit the marine reserve (MCZ) provided they could “prove” that their activity would not damage the protected species or habitat. In effect, a licence to continue business as usual, thereby ensuring that the principle of the “real” marine reserve was largely non-existent.

When Marinet saw this draft of the Act we said “hold on”, that’s a con. That’s not a real marine reserve. A real marine reserve protects the whole ecological system within its boundary, and we want that to be the basis of a MCZ. If they are not created in that way, they are worthless.

Disappointingly (although not surprisingly) the government did not agree with us. They refused to amend the terms of the Act and thus the basis on which MCZs would be defined and constituted.

Therefore Marinet formed an alliance with other marine NGOs to secure this specific amendment to the Act — MCZs will protect the whole ecosystem within their boundaries — and we sought MPs who would table this amendment and support it.

However when the government got wind of this, they went to the other members of the NGO alliance and said to them — we will not change the terms of the Act, but if you drop your support for the amendment we will give an “undertaking” expressed in a “letter placed in the House of Commons library” that we will honour the creation of MCZs on the “ecological” basis which you want.

Marinet said, no way. That has no legal standing, and the law is only what is stated in the Act. However the other marine NGOs swallowed this “undertaking” and withdrew from the alliance, thus abandoning their support for the legal basis for “real” marine reserves being written into the 2009 Act.

By the way, it needs to be noted that Marinet did not give in to this “persuasion” by the government. Marinet still went ahead and tabled the amendment, and secured the support of all the Opposition MPs and some Government MPs — but alas, not enough to win the vote on the day.

As a result, we now have a UK Marine Act which does not have the legal power to create real marine reserves (MCZs) — that is, reserves which protect the whole ecosystem within their boundary.

Hence we now have a situation where two dredging companies are about to apply for a licence to dredge a MCZ. And who would be prepared to place a bet on their application for a licence being denied?

Another point too, were the other marine NGOs right in 2009 or was Marinet? I think the answer to that question is clear. However, in any case, it is not really the salient question today.

That question is — are the UK marine NGOs ready to recognise the fundamental weakness of the terms of the Marine Act, and the mistake they made in 2009. . . . and are they now prepared to campaign (against the odds) for the refusal of a licence being given to dredge in Kingmere MCZ and, even more crucially, are they prepared to campaign for a reform of the 2009 Marine Act so that MCZs can protect the whole ecosystem with their boundary?

That is the real question.

Marinet, like you, is listening for the answer.

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