With last month’s designation of the final phase of England’s “Marine Conservation Zones” (MCZs), a substantial portion of this country’s seas and marine biodiversity is now protected within our national Marine Protected Area (MPA) network. All credit should go to those who have worked through the detailed process to achieve this and the many organisations and individuals who have collaborated to identify these sites and define why they need to be protected. But, as many commentators have already said, the challenge now is to bring some meaning to this network, in terms of both creating public understanding of the benefits that marine protection can bring, and setting up an effective management system that works for people and biodiversity.

In most countries, MPAs (like other protected areas) essentially start as “paper parks”, with designation happening first and then the resources and capacity for good management being progressively – and one hopes adaptively – built up. The idea that MPA designation can in itself signal a return to pristine marine wildernesses is clearly absurd. At Fauna & Flora International (FFI) our experience with MPA projects around the world has confirmed two fundamental aspects of good MPA management: active participation by the communities that depend on the areas involved, and a dual focus on biodiversity protection and livelihood generation. We should try to learn from the concept of “Locally Managed Marine Areas” (LMMAs), which has gained widespread credibility around the world. These involve communities, particularly those dependent on fishing, working with conservationists and governments to collaboratively protect the marine environment and its resources.

England’s MPA approach appears ridiculously complicated at the moment, but there are encouraging signs in the government’s 25-year Environment Plan, which calls for a “whole-site” approach to MPA management. This has yet to be defined but if used imaginatively and sensibly could lead to a new simplified framework for MPA management that everyone will understand and that would be far more cost-effective.

Following the new MCZ designations, the government has also announced a review of “Highly Protected Marine Areas”. We welcome the fact that attention is now turning to management, but the concept as currently proposed runs the risk of further overcomplicating the UK’s MPA network.  We urge all those involved to interpret this term in the widest sense. Very few medium to large MPAs anywhere in the world entirely exclude all extraction successfully, and most of these are in remote, relatively uncontested and uninhabited areas. Scientific evidence points to the need to close 30% of the oceans to exploitation for sustainability, and it is incontestable that areas of strict refuge are needed. But these do not need to be stand-alone MPAs. The need for closed areas/refuges/”no-take zones” should be considered as part of defining the whole site management approach. Indeed, the areas that have now been closed to mobile gear in English waters, and that in some cases are essentially no-take areas, are already showing signs of success.

We need to stop getting tangled up in terminology and designations that confuse people. MPAs have to be part of an ambitious national marine strategy that integrates spatial biodiversity protection with fisheries management and marine licensing in order to get tougher on industrial activities like dredging, trawling and aggregate extraction. It’s not rocket science, and we have the knowledge to get going!

Article co-authored by Daniel Steadman (Marine Technical Specialist) and Sue Wells (Head of Marine).