‘Dive in to Marine Protected Areas’ – Guest Post by Jess Mead

Jess Mead is a keen diver and Marine Biology graduate currently working for the National Marine Aquarium, coordinating the Community Seagrass Initiative in Weymouth, Dorset. She was previously a Marine Conservation Trainee at Dorset Wildlife Trust working at the Kimmeridge Marine Centre and before that she volunteered on various conservation projects across the world. You can follow her on twitter @jessmeadmarine . This article dips into the current state of Marine Conservation Zones in England and explains why 2017 should be the year that everyone gets more involved in marine conservation.

For many years, the wonderful marine life living in our seas was out of sight and out of mind for almost everyone. Pillaged for its seemingly endless supply of fish, a dump for sewage and waste, the UK’s waters were being pushed towards breaking point. Lundy Island was our first voluntary marine protected area, designated in 1971, decades after the first terrestrial equivalents.

Since then, times have changed and in 2009 a monumental piece of legislation was put into place to ensure clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse UK seas. The Marine and Coastal Access Act was an important turning point in marine protected area policy as it enabled the designation of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs).

Policy and legislation can be very dry subject matter and I have certainly struggled through a fair few government published documents with little enjoyment. However, legislation like the Marine and Coastal Access Act is the corner stone for much of the marine conservation work currently happening in the UK and understanding what it all means is key.

Seagrass Meadow. UK
Credit: Alex Mustard

The aim of MCZs is to fill in gaps in the “Blue Belt” of Marine Protected Areas around our coast. We now have 50 MCZs on top of other previously designated sites. This is a great start but we need many more MCZs around the UK if we are going to have a truly connected network of protected areas and there’s a final round of potential sites being considered in 2017. A public consultation will be starting in late summer/autumn and this is the time to make your voice heard. With habitats and wildlife declining at alarming rates across the globe, we all need to work together with policy makers to ensure decisions are being made that allow us to move towards a better and more sustainable future. There are many amazing marine sites across the country being put forward for consultation; whether it’s a spot local to you, somewhere you have fond memories of visiting as a child or a site that protects some of your favourite creatures, there’s a potential MCZ out there that needs you to champion its cause.

For me there is one site in particular I will be campaigning for; Studland Bay in Dorset. Above and below the water it is a beautiful local spot close to my heart. The seagrass meadows of Studland Bay are renowned as an important site for some of the most charismatic species in the UK, such as both species of native seahorse. The seagrass acts as a nursery ground for many commercial fisheries species as well as for the endangered Undulate Ray. Seagrass can also improve water quality, absorb and store more carbon per hectare than a tropical rainforest and stabilise sediments, reducing coastal erosion. However, despite the overwhelming evidence and recognition of its importance, it remains under threat.

Sadly, Studland Bay has been turned down as an MCZ in the last two rounds of designation (the reasons for which can be read about here: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/marine/tranche2mczs/supporting_documents/Studland%20Bay%20cMCZ%20site%20summary.pdf) and this is its last chance to gain MCZ protection. Studland is viewed as a controversial site by many, this is due to the longstanding disagreement between stakeholders about the damage being caused to the site by recreational boating. However, there is no doubt in my mind; Studland Bay should be an MCZ. Once the seagrass is gone, recovery is very difficult, so we need to make Studland Bay is protected soon.

I’d like as many people as possible to speak up for Studland Bay but it’s not just this site that needs our help. So find out as much as you can about Tranche 3 of the MCZ process and why not attend drop-in sessions being held in your area to chat to the people who make the decisions. Then keep your eye out for the public consultation dates later this year, so that when the time comes you are ready to recommend your chosen MCZ for designation. Tranche 3 is our last chance to designate new MCZs so it is time to add your voice to the cause.

If you’re a SCUBA diver why not get involved with Seasearch or the Community Seagrass Initiative and help collect further evidence of why the sites being considered in your area are so special. For information on how to get involved visit www.seasearcg.org.uk and www.csi-seagrass.co.uk.

For the full update of how the MCZ process has progressed and what the next steps are, please download the latest update pdf from DEFRA here.


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