The UK Government released a White Paper on 15 March that sets out an integrated suite of proposals for a new holistic approach to managing the nation’s marine activities. The document, titled A Sea Change: A Marine Bill White Paper, proposes introduction of a marine planning system for UK waters, a new mechanism for protecting natural resources through marine protected areas, and other measures. It is intended to help achieve the Government’s vision of “clean, healthy, safe, productive, and biologically diverse oceans and seas.”

The proposals in the White Paper take account of feedback from stakeholders on an earlier (2006) consultation that posed a range of options. The White Paper proposals are now open for public comment until 8 June 2007. The Government has not yet announced whether it will introduce the proposed legislation in the next parliamentary session, beginning this November, or later in this Parliament.

The proposals do not specifically use the word “zoning” to describe their overall aim, and provide only an outline for future public processes to plan UK marine regions; there are no details on what such plans would look like in practice. However, the planning system may use a range of techniques, some of which could be interpreted as zoning, to try to steer or guide the use of different parts of UK waters. These techniques, and marine planning generally, would be applied following a strategic rather than prescriptive approach. Decisions about whether specific activities could proceed would remain a matter for other controls, such as the process of assessing and issuing licenses.

The paper discusses the need to strike a balance between competing uses of marine space, and Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw said upon release of the White Paper that it would “provide a simplified and strategic approach to deciding what goes where in the sea.” The proposals call for most marine activities to be subject to assessment and consent procedures, through a streamlined and simplified licensing regime.

Protected areas would play a significant role in the marine planning process. The White Paper proposes the designation of a network of MPAs that “effectively conserves marine biodiversity” in UK waters by 2020. This network would include Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), a new term coined in the White Paper to describe MPAs designated for biodiversity conservation under the Marine Bill. MCZs would have a range of objectives, such as avoiding deterioration of a habitat from its current conservation condition; maintaining or enhancing current population levels of a particular species; or restoring or enabling the recovery of a habitat to a good condition. The network would likely involve some no-take areas, as the White Paper states the network is expected to include “highly protected sites.”

Seafish, the UK’s cross-industry seafood body, says the proposed framework overall would “put the UK among the world’s most progressive administrations in marine environmental management,” but advises that a new network of MPAs must be proportionate to ecological need, and that management restrictions inside those MPAs apply fairly to all sectors. The UK Offshore Operators Association, the representative body for offshore oil and gas producers, said in a press release that it supports the concept of a UK-wide system of marine planning as a means of providing greater certainty to business planning.

Melissa Moore of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), an NGO, says the White Paper proposals would represent only a bare minimum in terms of ecosystem protection, citing language in the White Paper that the MPA network cover “as small an area as necessary.” She would like to see greater political will in favor of conservation. “MCS would like to see a commitment within the bill to protect 30% of UK representative habitats within highly protected areas by 2020,” she says.

Angela Moffat of Natural England, the Government’s statutory advisory body on nature conservation in England, says legislation based on the proposals would likely receive cross-party support in Parliament, but would be a complicated and novel piece of legislation. “Part of the complexity is that it is attempting to legislate across devolved governments within the UK,” she says. “The main threat to the Marine Bill is that there may be insufficient time available in Parliament for the Bill’s passage before the next general election, and the Bill may not be a priority for any subsequent government.”

The Marine Bill White Paper, as well as a regulatory impact assessment and a letter to stakeholders inviting their comments, are all available online at