The UK Government announced yesterday that, after a process of consultation, 23 new MCZs have been designated in England. MCZs are areas
that protect a range of nationally important, rare or threatened habitats and species.
These were designated in two phases after a process involving close participation of stakeholders. The first 27 zones were designated on the 21st November
2013. Following consultation, 23 sites in the second phase were announced on 17 January 2016, bringing the total to 50 MCZs. These include an area
of 7,886 square miles (20,424 square kilometres). A third phase will be consulted on in 2017, and designated in 2018. Similar schemes are operating
in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to contribute to a UK wide network of marine protected areas.
MCZs are established by a legal order made by Defra under section 116(1) of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (MCAA). Each order designates an area
as an MCZ and defines that area, lists the features being protected within that area and specifies the conservation objective or objectives of the
MCZ. The orders are referred to as “designation orders”. The conservation objective for each MCZ is that each of the features to be protected should
be in a favourable condition – favourable condition for a habitat is when its extent (area) remains stable or is increasing, and its structures and
functions, its quality, and the composition of its characteristic biological communities are such as to ensure that it remains in a condition which
is “healthy and not deteriorating”.
Structure is the physical component of a habitat. This can be formed by biological populations, for example corals or worms in some forms of reef, and
by the grain-size of the sediment. Functions are the ecological processes the habitat performs, such as providing refuge for juvenile fish from predators,
or transferring energy across different levels of the food web.
For a species, the definition of favourable condition is that the quality and quantity of the species’ habitat, and the composition of its population in
terms of number, age and sex ratio, are such as to ensure that the population is maintained in numbers that enable it to thrive. For some highly mobile
species, this definition will be adapted to reflect that it is only present in the MCZ for part of its life cycle and/or for a particular purpose (e.g.
mating, egg laying).
It is expected that the network of MCZs will have a significant role in the recovery of marine fish populations and fisheries, depleted by decades of human
impacts and industrial trawling. For this, it is essential that management plans are in place for each of the MCZs.