Protecting nationally important marine areas in the Irish Sea Pilot Project Region
Environment Department, University of York, York, YO10 5DD, UK
Roberts, Callum, M,. Gell, Fiona, R,. & Hawkins, Julie, P.,
© Defra 2003

Executive Summary

The Irish Sea Pilot Project Area, like the rest of Britain's territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone, has been seriously neglected in nature conservation planning and action. In 2002, the Government published its vision of "clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas" for Britain. In this report we examine the actions that need to be taken to achieve this vision in the Irish Sea Pilot Project Area. We conclude that the implementation of broad marine stewardship measures, complemented by the creation of a network of highly protected nationally important marine areas, will go far toward safeguarding the rich biodiversity, outstanding natural beauty, fisheries and heritage of the Irish Sea region.
An enabling framework for conservation: Broad marine stewardship measures have much value in management and conservation of the sea. For example, efforts are underway or under development to reduce many kinds of pollution, and to phase out the use of toxic substances such as TBT in antifouling paints. Planning measures are in use or being developed to keep harmful activities such as aggregate extraction away from sensitive areas, and to protect coastal habitats. Further development of policies and practices is necessary in some areas, such as reducing the impact of aquaculture, limiting nitrate pollution, lowering the risk of introduction of invasive species and phasing out fishing in the deep sea. Taken together, broad marine stewardship measures provide an enabling framework for place-based conservation efforts in the sea. They are necessary but they will not be sufficient to achieve the Government's vision for Britain's sea. For example, they cannot properly protect fish stocks from overexploitation, or sensitive habitats from the damage done by fishing or other forms of extractive use.
The role of fishery management tools in conservation: Many fishery management tools have conservation value. They are designed to sustain populations of target species above certain target levels. However, the tool of choice for managing fisheries in Europe, Total Allowable Catches and national quotas, has the least conservation value of any of the management tools available. It has failed to deliver sustainable fisheries in the past and will fail in the future due to inherent limitations of the approach and the framework within which quotas are implemented within Europe. To achieve sustainability in fisheries, and protect non-target species and their habitats, fishery management will need to embrace tools including prohibition of the most damaging gears, closed areas to particular gears, precautionary TACs, bycatch quota, and modification of fishing gears and practices to reduce the collateral damage of fishing. In addition, the widespread introduction of fully protected marine reserves will meet the stock protection needs of fishery managers and the Government's conservation objectives. Marine reserves offer a win-win approach to fishery management and conservation. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the UK Government committed to rebuilding fish stocks to their maximum sustainable yield levels by 2015. Building towards protection of a significant proportion of their habitat as a refuge from exploitation and collateral damage from other fisheries is the only certain way to recover stocks of overexploited species such as cod, whiting, scallops, hake, or skate. Fishery management measures outside protected areas are necessary to complement protection offered by marine reserves, but they cannot substitute for it.
Purposes of a network of nationally important MPAs: At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the UK Government committed to creating a national network of marine protected areas by 2012. They have made a similar commitment with European nations under OSPAR. The primary purposes of this network of MPAs should be to protect the natural diversity and abundance of marine life, and the structure, function, and integrity of marine ecosystems; to restore degraded ecosystems and rebuild depleted populations, including those of commercially important species; and to provide enhanced opportunities for research, education, recreation and tourism. To this we suggest adding explicitly the purpose of sustaining or enhancing fisheries and contributing to fishery management.
Level of protection: Fishing is one of the most serious and pervasive human impacts on the sea. Until recently, protection from fishing has been low on the conservation agenda throughout the world. However, it is becoming widely recognized that protected areas must offer significant protection from fishing to be effective, particularly in intensively exploited regions like the Irish Sea. Recent scientific and management panels considering MPAs are unanimous in recommending fully protected marine reserves as a primary tool within protected area networks (see Section 2.3 for details of these panels). Marine reserves are areas protected from all fishing, extractive and additive activities, and from harmful levels of non-extractive uses. We recommend that this level of protection be afforded to sites encompassing the full spectrum of habitats and species in the Irish Sea Pilot Project area. Those sites can be supplemented by others offering more limited protection, but the network will be incomplete unless the highest level of protection is given to representatives from the entire range of habitats present.
Principles of protected area networking: A network (1) should be representative of the full range of biodiversity, (2) should replicate habitats in different protected areas, (3) should be designed so that populations in different protected areas can interact and be mutually supporting, (4) should be sufficiently large to ensure long-term persistence of species, habitats and ecological processes and services, and (5) should be based on the best available scientific, local and traditional information.
Site selection: Protected area selection must aim for broad representation of the full spectrum of biodiversity. It should not be driven, as it has been to date, by the need to protect threatened species or habitats. Habitat representation and protection of threatened species are dual objectives for protected area networks, not mutually exclusive ones. Hence, many of the sites chosen under the Natura 2000 process will be important elements of an MPA network, but the network needs to be much more broadly representative of Britain's marine biodiversity.
Fishing and other human activities have highly modified habitats and their associated ecological communities, both in the Irish Sea and elsewhere around Britain. Therefore, in selecting representative sites, the emphasis must be on seeking to recover and restore those sites to a more natural, little disturbed state, not on maintaining them in their present condition. At the network scale, the aim should be to provide the conditions for expansion in the ranges of species that have previously been seriously depleted, and to accommodate changes in range as environmental conditions change. This means that protected areas should be selected where some of the conservation target species are not currently present, rather than choosing sites only because particular focal species already exist there. As species recover, unoccupied sites can be expected to develop populations over time.
Networking and connectivity: A protected area network needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. The emphasis in Europe has so far been on selecting sites to protect specific attributes with little consideration given to how those sites interact with others. Management has been site specific rather than taking into account how a protected area affects and is affected by others. A central objective for a network is to ensure that there is ecological connectivity among protected areas units. For species that move or disperse widely, populations in protected areas should be mutually supporting. Levels of coverage, replication, size and spacing of protected areas need to be set taking connectivity considerations into account.
Level of replication: Habitats should be replicated in at least three, and preferably five or more, protected areas spread throughout the Irish Sea region, wherever the extent and distribution of a habitat allows. The aims of replication are to spread the benefits of protection throughout the region, to provide insurance against human and natural impacts, and to ensure ecological connectivity among protected areas.
Spacing of protected areas: Scales of ecological linkages in the sea – i.e. the movement of juveniles and adult organisms, dispersal of their offspring, and transport of materials – extend from metres to thousands of kilometers. However, for a wide range of species, those scales typically span metres to a few tens of kilometers. To ensure ecological connectivity in the network, protected areas with similar habitats should generally be spaced from a few to a few tens of kilometers apart.
Size of protected areas: There are no hard and fast rules governing protected area size. Protection goals, habitat distribution, heterogeneity and patchiness, mobility of species, together with social constraints that limit options for protection, all play into decisions on protected area size. Size of protected areas must be matched to the scales of mobility of the species in the habitats being considered. At a minimum, protected areas must be large enough and numerous enough to support long-term viable populations of the majority of species at the network level. For some species, populations will be viable at the level of individual protected areas. For more mobile and widely dispersing species, the aim is to achieve viability across the sum of protected areas making up the network. Two rules of thumb are that protected areas should be as large as possible given social constraints, and they should generally increase in size from nearshore to offshore environments.
Coverage of protected areas: Scientists now recommend that between 20 and 40% of the seas should be protected from fishing in order to deliver maximum benefits to fisheries. Such figures may also be necessary to meet objectives of representing all habitats and sufficiently replicating them in protected areas that are large enough to support viable populations. It is likely that significant levels of protection (20% and upwards) will be necessary to safeguard important ecosystem processes and services over large scales. However, we would recommend that if percentage coverage targets are used at all, they should inform rather than drive the protected area selection process.
Some habitats will require greater proportional protection than others. A larger fraction of habitat should be protected for isolated and regionally rare habitats, than for regionally extensive and widespread habitats. Some habitats warrant total protection. They include places for which the nature and degree of threats to them mean that any areas left unprotected will be destroyed or damaged beyond recognition, and where the recovery time following damage is lengthy. Maerl Beds, horse mussel Modiolus beds, Sabellid reefs, and deep-water habitats around Britain are among those that warrant complete protection.
Meeting the needs of mobile and migratory species: Protected areas may meet some of the conservation and management needs of highly mobile or migratory species. They can afford protection to such species at times and places where they are aggregated or are otherwise particularly vulnerable to human impact, such as spawning sites, nursery grounds or migration bottlenecks. Such areas should, wherever possible, be incorporated into the network. However, where species remain subject to moderate to high levels of threat outside protected areas, there will need to be supplementary management, such as additional fishing restrictions.
Options for the delivery of management: Protected areas in a network will require management approaches that are appropriate to their location and the major impacts affecting them. Offshore regions exploited by national and international fleets, and even some nearshore fisheries, can probably only be managed effectively if all fishing vessels are equipped with satellite monitoring systems. Some areas, especially larger protected areas in coastal regions that are subject to wide-ranging and intensive uses, will require park managers and wardens to monitor activities, enforce regulations and engage with the public. It may be possible to look after a few protected areas using community-based management, where the area is monitored and enforced by local communities. However, community-based management needs to be supplemented with legal protection measures so that protection is statutory, not voluntary.
Building networks: The above figures for coverage of protected areas represent long-term targets. Networks can rarely be built all at once, and an incremental approach will certainly be necessary in the Irish Sea. At the outset, a suite of sites needs to be identified that will broadly represent biodiversity in the region, but that prioritizes protection of the most vulnerable habitats and species. It is essential to ensure that vulnerable areas are secured in the first wave of protected area establishment. This will help avoid redirection of human activities from protected areas to more sensitive environments. It will also mean that threatened species and habitats are among the first to be afforded the conditions necessary for recovery.
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Please cite as: Roberts, Callum, M,. Gell, Fiona, R,. & Hawkins, Julie, P.,, (2003), Protecting nationally important marine areas in the Irish Sea Pilot Project Region