The UK Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) ran a consultation from the 13th December 2012 to 31st March 2013 on proposals for the designation of Marine Conservation Zones. To quote Defra, the response was ‘exceptional’ with over 40,000 responses received (to get an idea of how exceptional this was, a consultation from March to June 2012 on proposals for Good Environmental Status under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive received a total of 77 responses). Even allowing for high profile campaigns boosting interest, it is clear that the issue of marine protected areas is one that stirs up a great deal of passion (for a scientific perspective see Professor Callum Roberts’ article in this issue)

On the same day that Defra was issuing a summary of responses to the UK consultation it was being reported that a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) had failed to reach agreement on setting up protected areas in the Ross Sea and Eastern Antarctica. Russia wanted to ‘establish the scientific case’ but had blocked the proposals over various concerns including fishing restrictions. It is these same arguments over protection versus exploitation that are being played out in numerous situations around the world.

Long-lived branching sponges and sea fans in the Start Point to Eddystone Special Area of Conservation. Image: Keith Hiscock.

The challenge for scientists and scientific societies such as the Marine Biological Association (MBA) is that discussions around protected areas are not just restricted to issues of marine science. Take the example of the Chagos Marine Protected Area in the Indian Ocean. This is now the world’s largest notake marine reserve and the MBA stated in its comments to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 2010 that from a scientific point of view the proposal for a reserve deserved support. We were, however, well aware that the whole debate over the Chagos proposal was taking place within the framework of broader disputes over rights of return for Chagos Islanders and disputes over sovereignty between the governments of the UK and Mauritius.

The job of marine scientists in all of this is to focus on the science: ensuring that those making decisions have the best scientific evidence available and, equally important, that they understand how to use this evidence base. In December 2012 the Association gave evidence to the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee1 and made a plea for a realistic approach regarding evidence used to support policy. For example, it has been unfortunate to see phrases such as ‘lack of evidence’ and ‘inadequate science base’ being used as a reason not to implement marine protected areas in UK waters which are, relatively speaking, some of the best known and most intensively studied waters in the world. It will always be the case that unless our ability to map and understand the marine environment outstrips our capacity for exploitation (a highly unlikely scenario) the precautionary principle will need to be applied in order to ensure the best long-term outcomes for all parties. Meanwhile, the marine biological community needs to be at the forefront in providing evidence and filling gaps in knowledge with directed research, whilst at the same time helping decision makers understand the inevitable limits to understanding the > 99% (by volume) of the biosphere which is oceans and seas.

Matt Frost ( is MBA Deputy Director (Policy & Knowledge Exchange).

1. See the Committee’s report on Marine Science at


Matt Frost