Marine Conservation Zones: valuable environmental protection or ill-thought out bureaucracy?

With an accelerating race for marine space by energy companies, aggregates, conservationists, and fishermen etc, etc (the list is pretty long and increasing); a key question for me is how we manage all of this human activity to ensure that it is sustainable? From a fisheries perspective how do we ensure an industry that is environmentally responsible, socially fair, and economically efficient?

Sustainable development is often widely criticised for meaning different things to different people, a current buzz word in marine policy circles at the minute is ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES), all EU states are required to achieve it by 2020, but what does this actually mean?

Just how good is good? How do we achieve GES and what does it mean for the fishing industry?

One current school of thought is through designating networks of marine protected areas (MPAs); areas of sea that have restrictions on certain human activities to protect certain features of the marine environment, be it species, habitats, or unique geomorphology.

The UK, after an arduous 18 months of regional stakeholder meetings has finalised its own network of uniquely branded MPAs, marine conservation zones (MCZs) ( This has, however, not happened without its fair share of controversy; there has been a fair amount of screaming and shouting by the fishing industry, which is perhaps expected given their financial stake, though not totally unjustified if you look at this situation from their point of view.

Whilst some fishermen’s claims may be over-exaggerated, the designation of MCZs will have socioeconomic impacts on the fishing community, and rather unfortunately the small-scale (vessels under 10m) fishing fleet is likely to be hardest hit. MCZs are yet another regulation to add to the existing long list that makes fishing that bit harder for fishermen who are currently only making marginal profits.

MCZs may well protect the environment; the social consequences however may mean that small fishing vessels have to travel further out to sea compromising crew safety.

Economically, some fishermen will be hit harder than others; they will have to spend more money on fuel to travel to fishing grounds further away, they may start to fish more inefficiently and fish harder (perversely causing more damage to the seabed) to make ends meet.

Some commentators would argue that we have approached the challenge of achieving GES from too narrow a scientific perspective, from that of the marine ecologist. Economists and social scientists need to become more heavily involved and look at ways to incentivise environmentally responsible behaviour rather than imposing yet more regulation.

Alex Caveen

Alex Caveen, PhD Student, School of Marine Science and Technology

2 thoughts on “Marine Conservation Zones: valuable environmental protection or ill-thought out bureaucracy?

  1. Hi Alex,

    What about the evidence from NZ and Australia whereby MPAs act as nusery areas and the abundence of stocks just outside the MPA makes up for the inability to fish within the MPA.

    I’m interested in the same issue from a more social and cultural angle. How do coastal communities view the marine environment culturally and what impact will MCZ and the whole marine spatial planning system have on these cultural and social relationships with the marine environment? Would be good to meet up for a coffee and chat –


  2. Hi Paul,

    You raise some good points. There is evidence that when situated in the right places MPAs can indeed have fisheries benefits; spawning grounds and nursery areas for one, closed areas are used in the UK for this purpose.

    The main concern I think is that we have very limited knowledge, particularly in the offshore, for us to designate MPAs to benefit fish stocks. It must also be remembered that we are designating MCZs in the UK primarily to meet biodiversity conservation objectives, and benefits/ costs of MCZs to fisheries will be purely incidental.

    The evidence for ‘spillover’ I think is very contentious, and perhaps only relevant to coral/ rocky reef fisheries where species are heavily site attached, and also very dependent on the layout of the habitat. There is some evidence to suggest that spillover benefits can possibly occur for lobsters and shellfish in certain circumstances.

    I’d be very interested to hear more on the cultural angle as my work at the minute is heavily focused on the biological effects of MPAs.


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