In recent years the marine biological community has focused a lot of attention and effort on identifying and establishing new marine protected areas (MPAs). In England the government designated 27 new Marine Conservation Zones in 2013 bringing the number of MPAs around England (out to 200 nm) to 114 with more to come. Together with MPAs designated by other UK authorities the MPA network covers 16 .2% of UK waters. Creating new MPAs is only the first step. The UK is committed to a network that is also well-managed so that habitats and species can thrive and contribute to healthier seas across the UK. No-one wants paper parks!

Well-managed MPAs in England require many organizations to work well together. In other countries there is often a single body responsible for managing MPAs – in the case of the Great Barrier Reef, this single body is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. In the UK we have different authorities to manage different activities happening at sea including the 10 regional Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs), the Marine Management Organization (MMO) and local authorities.  However, far from being a weakness, this framework can be a strength allowing regional and local decision making. The key issue is to ensure that regulators, national, regional or sectoral, are clear why a site has been designated and what effect the actions they manage can have on those sites.

These managers use advice from the nature conservation agencies, Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), on the importance and objectives of protected habitats and species. This gives rise to many questions. What does a healthy rocky reef look like? What habitats and species should it contain? How big should it be? What ecological processes are important to the reef and what pressures (and activities that cause these) might damage the reef? For inshore MPAs, Natural England also undertakes monitoring to check the health of the habitats and species against the objectives, often in partnership with management bodies.

Immediately from designation, and as good practice even before designation, management bodies have legal duties to protect MPAs. Those proposing new activities such as dredge disposal or development of marine infrastructure must apply for a licence (usually a marine licence from the MMO) and licences will not be granted unless consideration of their effect on the site has been assessed. The licensing body can refuse or modify consents to avoid or mitigate environmental impacts.

In the last year Defra, the MMO, IFCAs, Natural England and JNCC have been working together to improve the management of fisheries within MPAs following a change to how these activities could be managed. The MMO and IFCAs have put in place 17 byelaws which protect features such as Sabellaria reef and seagrass beds in MPAs from high-risk fishing activities. This was a big step towards towards achieving a well-managed network, and between now and end of 2016, other fishing activities will be assessed and, if required, new management measures agreed.

The English coast is a busy place and some of our coastal MPAs are highly complex with many management bodies and activities occurring. The managers of some of these sites have come together to produce a management scheme. This local partnership working has led to new codes of conduct, joint research projects and raising awareness with communities about MPAs and the importance of our marine wildlife.

We are actively working towards all MPAs being well-managed and with this mixture of legal duties to protect MPAs, licensing, identifying management measures for existing activities and local partnership working it is clear that England’s MPAs are not paper parks.

Red sea fingers (Alcyonium glomeratum) and other benthic fauna. A healthy rocky reef supporting a rich assemblage of invertebrates. Image: Keith Hiscock.

Jen Ashworth manages Natural England’s Marine Conservation and Management Advice and Capability Teams.

Leanne Stockdale is Senior IFCA Byelaws and Liaison Officer at the Marine Management Organization, UK.

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Jen Ashworth and Leanne Stockdale

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