Editor’s note: Alice Cornthwaite is Marine Support Officer for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee of the UK. The JNCC is the statutory adviser to the UK Government on national and international nature conservation.

By Alice Cornthwaite, UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee

The UK has had a busy 2012 in terms of progressing marine protected areas and working towards the aim of establishing a well-managed network of MPAs by 2016. MPAs will protect UK marine life while allowing sustainable and legitimate use of our seas to continue. The network of MPAs will also ensure we meet our commitments under international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the OSPAR Convention, as well as national legislation such as the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. MPAs established under international, European and national legislation will all contribute to this network.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is responsible for the identification of MPAs in the UK offshore marine area. It has been working closely with the other UK conservation agencies on providing advice to Government on Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas, Marine Conservation Zones, and Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas.

European marine sites

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) – UK

The UK now has 107 SACs with marine components, covering 7.6% of the UK sea area.

During 2012 JNCC has worked on the remaining SACs required to fulfill our obligations for habitat SACs under the EU Habitats Directive. This work included submitting two new sites in the Irish Sea and one in the English Channel to the European Commission in July 2012. In October 2012, JNCC submitted five SACs in the Scottish offshore region, which had undergone a public consultation in Spring 2012. All five Scottish sites have been identified for reef features ranging from bedrock to cold water coral reef. One of these sites, Hatton Bank, is the largest MPA ever proposed within Europe (16,594 km2). The UK SAC network includes a wide range of exciting habitats and species, including unique environments such as coral reefs growing on sand mounds on the Darwin Mounds; Anton Dohrn seamount, an extinct volcano; and Dogger Bank, which is Europe’s largest sandbank. There are also submarine structures that support unique communities of chemosynthetic organisms and have revealed species new to science, such as a nematode at Scanner Pockmark.

Special Protection Areas (SPAs) – UK

While the UK SPA network is well-established on land, SPA provision for birds in the marine environment is less developed. To address this, the UK aims to identify all SPAs within its waters and, where possible, have them classified by the end of 2015. The UK currently has 107 SPAs with marine components but only three of these are entirely marine. Work is underway by JNCC and the other UK conservation agencies to identify additional entirely marine SPAs, including inshore sites for waterbirds such as divers, grebes and seaducks outside of the breeding season; marine extensions to existing terrestrial SPAs; and offshore areas used for feeding by seabirds such as puffins, gannets and shearwaters.

National MPAs

Recent national legislation enables the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to designate MPAs in their waters. All administrations are taking forward their MPA work, with projects in each country at different stages. JNCC has been working on the offshore part of two projects described below, whilst providing advice to the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations on their inshore projects.

Marine Conservation Zones – England

In a unique approach, potential areas for the Government to consider as national MPAs – known as Marine Conservation Zones, or MCZs – were identified and recommended by four regional groups of sea users. Fishermen sat down with conservationists, scuba divers with windfarm developers. By the end of the project, more than 6000 sea users had been involved through a series of discussions and negotiations to come up with a recommended network of sites in September 2011. MCZs will protect a vibrant range of habitats: seagrasses, maerl (a hard seaweed), sponge gardens, muddy areas, and more. There are a number of weird and wonderful species that can also be protected within these sites, including the kaleidoscope jellyfish that “cartwheels” to move, and sea-fan anemones that reproduce by leaving behind a train of fragments from the base of their bodies – these fragments then grow into new anemones!

In July 2012 as advisers on the natural environment, JNCC and Natural England provided the UK Government with formal advice on the science behind these recommendations and the quality of the ecological data (available at http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-6228 and www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/marine/mpa/mcz/advice.aspx). A public consultation is due to start on the sites in December 2012; if supported, the first sites are expected to be designated in late 2013.

Nature Conservation MPAs – Scotland

JNCC and Scottish Natural Heritage will submit scientific advice to Scottish Government identifying proposals for Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in November 2012. These proposals complement the existing network of MPAs with the aim of furthering the protection of Scotland’s marine biodiversity and geodiversity. The marine habitats and species represented in the proposals reflects the great range and diversity of Scotland’s marine environment including flame shell beds, burrowed mud habitats and deep sea sponge aggregations. The proposals also encompass large-scale features – e.g., seamounts and shelf banks and mounds – to help build ecosystem function into the network of MPAs (http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-6053). Scottish Government has led stakeholder involvement in development of the proposals via a series of five national workshops.

Scottish Ministers will report to Parliament on progress in developing the MPA network by the end of 2012, and will decide which of the Nature Conservation MPA proposals will go forward to a public consultation in 2013.

Note: UK MPAs can be viewed on the JNCC MPA interactive map: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5201

For more information:

Alice Cornthwaite, JNCC, Peterborough, UK. Email: Alice.Cornthwaite@jncc.gov.uk

BOX: Planning offshore MPAs in the UK: A few of the challenges

By Alice Cornthwaite

  1. Data availability in the offshore region has historically been low compared to the inshore region, with modeled data often used as a proxy for field records. The JNCC has pushed hard to promote further data collection and has itself undertaken offshore survey campaigns to gather more information to underpin designations. Check out our offshore survey blog (http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-6068) during November 2012 when we are surveying Wyville Thomson Ridge, Braemar Pockmarks and Scanner Pockmark in Scottish offshore waters.
  2. Generating enthusiasm for the protection of common representative features such as mud habitats and sandbanks is not as easy as it is for iconic and rare species. Producing guides (http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-4527) to demonstrate the value of these habitats has enabled stakeholders to understand the need to designate MPAs for representative broad-scale habitats that will also include rare and iconic species.
  3. There is a range of national and international commitments, so it can be a challenge to deal with their different legislative regimes. National MPAs, for example, can take account of socio-economic information from stakeholders, but SACs under the EU Habitats Directive can only be proposed using scientific information. Clear communications are required to help stakeholders avoid any confusion and maintain their support for the MPA work.