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Marine Conservation Zones finally secured to ensure a healthy future for the Irish Sea

Cumbria Wildlife Trust celebrates after six more Marine Conservation Zones are designated in the Irish Sea creating network of protected areas
Common starfish, digging for prey (Photo Paul Naylor/www.marinephoto.co.uk)

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has today created 41 new Marine Conservation Zones, marking the most significant expansion of England’s ‘Blue Belt’ of protected areas to date.

Stretching from Cornwall to Northumberland, the new protections safeguard 12,000 square kilometres of marine habitat, an area almost eight times the size of Greater London. Today’s announcement follows the government’s manifesto commitment to create a Blue Belt of marine protection for Britain’s overseas territories and its own coast, and builds on the ambition of the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Ancient clams, sea pens, fish, sea urchins, burrowing anemones and starfish are just some of the wildlife species that will benefit from six new Marine Conservation Zones that have been designated in the Irish Sea today.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “The UK is already leading the rest of the world by protecting over 30% of our ocean – but we know there is more to do.

“Establishing this latest round of Marine Conservation Zones in this Year of Green Action is another big step in the right direction, extending our blue belt to safeguard precious and diverse sea life for future generations to come.”

The latest round of protections follow an extensive consultation, including with local fishermen and marine conservation experts, which received overwhelming support for the proposals. In total, over 48,000 responses were submitted by members of the public, with Defra designating all 41 of the proposed sites and expanding protections at 12 existing sites.

Each designation is based on scientific evidence provided by marine experts from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), as well as socio-economic information provided by stakeholders and Defra economists. Management plans will now be put in place to protect the newly-designated habitats and species.

Regulators, such as the Marine Management Organisation and local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCA), will be responsible for ensuring the Marine Conservation Zones are managed to protect their species and habitats, working with local fishing communities and other organisations.

Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, said: “These new protections are based on advice from our world-leading marine scientists and we believe will go a long way toward safeguarding over a million hectares of England’s ocean and coastal environment, and the many species which rely upon it.

“Today really does mark a major step forward for the conservation of our precious marine environment, but there is still much to be done, including putting in place more of the good practices that we know are needed to secure the long-term health of our seas and their wildlife.”

South Rigg, Queen Corner, Wyre and Lune Estuaries and Ribble Estuary are locations across the Irish Sea have also been designated today. This means there is now a total of 10 Marine Conservation Zones in the Irish Sea and 91 across English coastal and offshore waters.

Emily Baxter, Senior Marine Conservation Officer for the North West Wildlife Trusts, has led the campaign for Marine Conservation Zones in the North West. She says: “We are delighted that this announcement brings six new Marine Conservation Zones for the Irish Sea. The protection of these areas is crucial to the recovery of an array of underwater habitats and threatened species that have suffered from decades of over-exploitation.

“These special places include deep muddy plains that are home to delicate sea pens, strange spoon worms, fragile sea potatoes, as well as the world’s longest lived creatures – ocean quahog clams! Other areas include scarce areas of sandy seabed that support a wealth of wildlife from molluscs to sea urchins, and burrowing anemones and starfish, plus four important estuaries across the North West where some of the last surviving populations of European smelt (the cucumber fish) in England are known to exist.”

The North West Wildlife Trusts have been campaigning for Marine Conservation Zones since 2009 when the UK Government passed a piece of landmark legislation, the Marine and Coastal Access Act.  These pieces of legislation placed a duty on the UK Government to dramatically boost protection of our seas by creating an ecologically coherent network of protected areas.

In 2013, strength of feeling was demonstrated when more than 350,000 pledges, calling for a network of Marine Protected Areas, were presented to Downing Street by The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, Marine Conservation Society and WWF.  A few months later, The Wildlife Trusts welcomed Defra’s designation of 27 Marine Conservation Zones, the first step towards the creation of an ecologically coherent network so vital to ensure the healthy future of our seas. The Cumbria Coast and Fylde Marine Conservation Zones were the first to be created in the North West.

In 2016, a second round of 23 Marine Conservation Zones were designated across England including Cumbria’s Allonby Bay and West of Walney Marine Conservation Zones. The final round of Marine Conservation Zones that have been created today will largely complete the ecologically coherent network of protected areas throughout our seas; a real success story and one which would not have been achieved without 10 years of campaigning by The North West Wildlife Trusts.

Emily Baxter stated: “The support we’ve had from over 6,000 North West Wildlife Trust members and supporters has been crucial in getting the Government to listen to our concerns about wildlife species and habitats in the Irish Sea over the last 10 years. We all know about the huge amount of plastics in our seas but there are so many other threats to our seas. This network of protected areas will help to ensure that our most special, sensitive and important marine life and habitats have the space to recover from past damage and declines. However, this will only happen if these areas are properly managed. That is now our next step: to ensure that management of these zones is implemented and enforced.”

Why are Solway Firth and West of Copeland Marine Conservation Zones special?

Solway Firth Marine Conservation Zone (45km2)

Species: Fish including European smelt, wading birds, cockles, mussels, living reefs

Habitats: Boulder and cobble reefs in the outer estuary, intertidal mudflats and saltmarsh creeks

Conservation status: Recover – smelt populations have declined drastically over the past 200 years

European smelt were once widespread in estuaries across the UK but they have been lost from many estuaries in England and Scotland. They feed over rocky areas in the lower estuary and migrate to freshwater to spawn. Juvenile smelt gather together in nursery grounds in the middle estuary before heading back towards the sea.

West of Copeland Marine Conservation Zone (158km2)

Habitats: Mixed sediments from fine sand to coarse gravels

Conservation status: Recover – the seabed here is sensitive to damage from trawling and dredging

The range of sandy sediments on the seabed supports a wealth of wildlife from molluscs to sea urchins, and burrowing anemones and starfish. Not much of the seabed in the Irish Sea is made of coarse sand and gravel so it is vital that we protect special areas of this scarce habitat.

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