Protecting marine environments


Common or blue mussels.jpg Common or Blue Mussels (Mytilus edulis) open and feeding in current. Mussel beds provide an important food source for wintering waders. Image: Paul Kay and Natural England

The RYA reflects on the Government response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s MPAs inquiry

The Government has not adequately responded to concerns around Marine Protected Areas, according to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The suite of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is designed to protect and enhance the marine environments of the Overseas Territories and around the UK coast, whilst supporting the sustainable use of its resources.

The Blue Belt programme in UK Overseas Territories, together with domestic designations of MPAs, is intended to significantly contribute to the UK fulfilling its international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which include a target of 10 per cent of global waters protected by 2020.

Robust evidence

The EAC had called upon Government for more designations to be made using ‘best available’ data. Giving evidence to the Committee on Marine Protected Areas, the RYA called for decisions on designation to be based on sound, objective and robust evidence.

Emma Barton, RYA Planning and Environmental Manager, said that this evidence should be up-to-date and from a reliable source and that an area or site should not be designated for a specific feature (e.g. species or habitat) unless it has been established that the feature is present in the area to be protected.

In its response, the Government confirmed that for a site to be designated, and subsequently managed, there needs to be certainty that the feature is present on the site and of its extent. They said that this is a reasonable evidence base to support decisions that may have economic impacts on people’s livelihoods and result in enforcement and monitoring costs that fall on the tax payer.

Significant delay

Jewel anemones are commonly green and pink or orange and electric blue. Image: Paul Kay and Natural England

The 2015 Conservative Party Manifesto made a commitment to complete the network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). So far, however, only 50 MCZs have been designated. This is considerably less than the 127 sites originally recommended by the regional projects in 2011. The previous EAC’s report made clear that the Government should not delay the designation of sites due to a lack of “perfect data”.

The EAC asked the Government to bring forward proposals as soon as possible.  They said the Government response of 2019 is a significant delay as the third tranche of MCZs was originally expected to be designated in 2018.

During the inquiry, the RYA called on Government to carry out effective stakeholder engagement in order to understand the benefits and impacts of designating potential MCZs.

The RYA made it clear that they should ensure they are designed so conservation aims are achieved whilst minimising the impact on sea users, prior to finalising the proposals for the formal consultation.

The RYA also called on Government to increase investment socio-economic data collection to enable an accurate impact assessment and to understand what management may need to be put in place.

It was confirmed by the Government that it is vital that there is an adequate evidence base for each site to ensure successful, well-managed MCZs. They said they will not make rushed decisions, nor make decisions which are not based on evidence.

They recognised that some MCZs may have potentially significant impacts on sea users, so it is right that they take the time necessary to consider options to best reduce any impacts, whilst still delivering the sites’ conservation aims.

Reference areas

In its report the EAC made clear its disappointment that the Government had decided to exclude reference areas from the third tranche of MCZs. The Committee’s report stated that without Reference Areas the Government will be unable to “establish an effective and coherent MPA network, as they will have no benchmark against which to assess the effectiveness of management measures”.

The RYA had strong concerns over the approach that had been taken for selecting and monitoring Reference Areas. Given the potentially significant impacts on socio-economic activities through their exclusion from Reference Areas, the RYA said it is essential that the science behind the approach is robust and that the ecological benefits are demonstrably proportionate to the socio-economic costs. It was affirmed that the RYA would be very concerned should Reference Areas be proposed for the third and final tranche.

In its response the Government has argued that it has chosen not to proceed with Reference Areas as “specific proposals in the original stakeholder engagement were too small to provide the necessary benefits”. It has failed to outline, however, any other form of data that will be used to assess progress against conservation objectives.

Communications strategy

The previous Committee argued that while MPAs should be “the jewels in Britain’s crown” the Government needs to “implement a robust communications strategy that aims to raise awareness of the MPA network amongst businesses and the general public”.

In evidence to EAC, the RYA stated that the lack of openness on which sites might be designated, and what management might be needed, has resulted in sites becoming both locally and nationally contentious.

The Government’s communications strategy in both the UK and the UKOTs, however, is still ineffective and unsatisfactory, this is despite it having been raised as a concern in 2014.

The Government has accepted that there is always more that could be done to improve communications. For the third tranche they said they have been focusing their stakeholder engagement on the more controversial sites.

RYA’s position

The RYA will continue to actively engage in the MPA process to ensure that recreational boating interests are understood and taken account of as part of the MCZ designation process.

Emma Barton, RYA Planning and Environmental Manager, said: “We recognise that establishing an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas will contribute towards achieving the Governments’ shared vision for clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas.

“In most cases we believe this vision can be achieved without any adverse effect on either the public right or the safety of navigation for recreational boating.

“We strongly believe that education and an increased understanding of the environment leads to better actions within marine conservation zones, as opposed to legislation. Ultimately our members are out there to enjoy the environment and we are working hard to ensure Government recognises this.”

To find out more about the RYA’s work to ensure that recreational boating’s interests are considered as part of the MPA process, visit the Current Affairs hub at