Marine Conservation Zones

Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in the UK

“Marine Conservation Zones are areas that protect a range of nationally important, rare or threatened habitats and species”1.

Under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009,government is required to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to protect nationally representative habitats and species. This includes designation of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), known as Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (NCMPAs) in Scotland, to complement other types of MPAs. 

Unlike other designations, economic and social implications can be considered when determining MCZs. There is therefore a balance between conservation and socio-economic factors. As well as nature conservation interests, the interests of the users of the sea may be taken into consideration. 

Designation of MCZs follows different processes in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are responsible for designating MCZs in English inshore waters (up to 12nm offshore) and those in English and Northern Irish offshore waters, with projects led by the Joint Nature Conservation Commission (JNCC) and Natural England. The Welsh Government are responsible for MCZ designations in Welsh inshore waters, and those in Welsh offshore waters will soon also be devolved to them. Advice is provided by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and JNCC. Marine Scotland lead the designation process of NCMPAs in Scottish waters on behalf of the Scottish Government, and the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEARA) is responsible for MCZ designations in Northern Irish inshore waters. 

Analysis was undertaken on a biogeographical basis, from regions identified during the ‘Review of Marine Nature Conservation’ in 2004, to ascertain gaps within the existing MPA network to ensure representation of the full range of habitats and species.

An interactive MCZ map is available on the JNCC and MMO websites.

MCZ Management 

For most MCZs, current management relating to activities such as recreational boating consists of monitoring. The MMO is, however, now (2021) examining the management of Non-Licensable Activities within MCZs, including recreational boating. For further information onsite-specific management, look at the MMO strategic management table

RYA Involvement 

The RYA fought hard to ensure the importance of socio-economic activities could be taken into consideration in the designation of MCZs during the Marine and Coastal Access Bill process. 

The RYA has been involved in all four of the English Regional Stakeholder Groups (RSG) and continues to work with stakeholders and Defra. RYA Northern Ireland, RYA Scotland and RYA Cymru Wales are engaging directly with the MPA process in their respective countries with support from RYA HQ. 

The RYA's primary objectives of engaging in the MCZ consultation process are to protect the public right of navigation and to ensure, as far as possible, that recreational boating interests are not adversely affected by the designation of such MCZs. The RYA wants to minimise the impact of management measures introduced in MCZs on recreational boating.


Proposals for MCZs in English inshore and English, Welsh and Northern Irish offshore waters were identified and recommended by Natural England (NE) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) through the Marine Conservation Zone Project, set up in 2008.

Possible sites for MCZs were initially recommended through a stakeholder-led approach, under four regional projects: Irish Sea Conservation ZonesFinding Sanctuary (South West), Balanced Seas (South East) and Net Gain (North Sea). Recommendations for 127 MCZ locations were made in September 2011, but due to limitations in the scientific evidence base, it was decided to designate MCZs in tranches. 

Tranche 1

Advice was provided to Defra by NE for inshore sites (within or straddling the 12nm limit) and JNCC for offshore sites. After a formal consultation from December 2012 to March 2013, with 40,000 responses, 27 MCZs were designated in November 2013 (including 6 offshore), covering 9,700 km2 of seabed. 

Tranche 2

A further 23 MCZs (including seven offshore sites) were designated by Defra in January 2016 after pre-consultation advice by NE and JNCC, and a public consultation between January and April 2015, to which there were over 9,000 responses. These MCZs, selected to fill the ‘big gaps’ in the network2 protect 10,760 kmof seabed, and brought MCZ coverage of English waters to over 20,000 km2, an area nearly the size of Wales. 

Tranche 3

A third tranche of 41 sites (and 12 additional features of existing sites) was designated in May 2019. This tranche completed the English component of the UK's contribution to a network of marine protected areas in the north east Atlantic.

RYA Involvement

The RYA has been involved in the MCZ process since stakeholder engagement began in 2009. The RYA submitted a detailed and robust response to the public consultation on both the first and second tranche of MCZs. In addition, we gathered new socio-economic data though our clubs and regions, and submitted this in response to Defra's call for additional stakeholder evidence. The RYA continues to be involved in the consultation process on the third tranche.


In Welsh inshore waters the MCZ Project Wales was set up to identify Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). Initially, the Welsh Government planned to designate Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones (HPMCZs), likely to have strong conservation management measures. However, after huge controversy following the public consultation on ten such sites in 2012, plans were withdrawn.  

In July 2013 Alun Davies AM, then WG Minister for Natural Resources and Food, released a statement on MCZs and other types of existing marine protected areas (MPAs) in Wales. Following this, an assessment by JNCC and Natural Resources Wales (NRW), and subsequent 2016 report, identified some gaps in the existing Welsh MPA network, particularly in waters deeper than 75m. 

In December 2014, Skomer, an existing Marine Nature Reserve, was designated as the first MCZ in Welsh territorial waters. 

Designations of offshore sites in Wales will now also be devolved to the Welsh Government. Recommended MCZ sites previously included Celtic Deep, East of Celtic Deep, Mid St George’s Channel, North of Celtic Deep, and North St George’s Channel. 

RYA Involvement

The RYA has been working with Welsh Government (WG) about its plans for MCZs for some time, and together with the RYA Cymru Wales, is well placed to represent the views of recreational boaters in these discussions. As well as meeting with WG directly, the RYA is a member of the Wales Marine Action and Advisory Group (formerly Welsh Marine Strategic Advisory Group), ensuring the interests of recreational boaters are represented. The working group represents users including industry and recreational sectors. 


Scotland can designate Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 (for territorial waters), and the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (for sites further offshore). The Scottish MPA Project is an initiative between Marine Scotland, the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee (JNCC), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Historic Scotland, and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). 

SNH and JNCC worked together to compile a list of habitats, species and geological features that need to be protected; known as MPA search features. A gap analysis then identified which MPA search features were poorly represented in the network. In November 2012,SNH and JNCC submitted formal advice on their recommendations for MPAs. National stakeholder workshops were held, along with meetings with stakeholder representatives and marine user groups. A formal consultation was held between July and November 2013, with over 14,000 responses. 

In July 2014 30 new Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (NCMPAs) were designated, 17 in territorial waters, and 13 further offshore, in total covering 10% of Scottish seas. 

SNH submitted formal advice for a second tranche of proposed NCMPAs in July 2014. If designated, the additional four NCMPAs will “protect important areas on Scotland's west coast for basking sharks, minke whales and Risso's dolphins as well as protecting seabed habitats around the Shiants”3.

A report was published in 2015 assessing the adequacies of the Scottish MPA network in covering the MPA search features, which identified most features to have adequate coverage, provided the four proposed NCMPAs are designated. 

For further information on Scottish MPAs, including an interactive map, see the NatureScot website.


In order to conserve protected features, some MPAs and SACs in Scotland have management measures implemented, which mainly relate to fisheries. The two-phase approach to determine management measures for the 17 inshore MPAs and 22 SACs started in 2014 with a series of regional stakeholder management workshops. The aim was to “develop practical and proportionate management approaches that achieve the conservation objectives without unnecessarily hindering economic activity”4. A public consultation followed from November 2014 to February 2015, with results published in the consultation analysis document

After breaches of voluntary arrangements at two sites, statutory management provisions have been introduced. Management for four of the sites are implemented using Marine Conservation Orders under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, while management of the others are implemented by an Inshore Fisheries Order under the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984. The Omnibus Fisheries Order, and the Luce Bay Fisheries Order were laid at the end of 2015. Draft Marine Conservation Orders (MCOs) for were consulted on in 2015. South Arran MCO came into effect in February2015, followed by Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MCO and Wester Ross MCO in March 2016. The MCO for Small Isles MPA is still in draft form. Management measures to these sites relate to fisheries. Further information is available from Marine Scotland

RYA Involvement

RYA Scotland has developed a close working relationship with Marine Scotland (the body leading the MPA process on behalf of the Scottish Government) and Scottish Natural Heritage. The views of the RYA and RYAS were taken into consideration throughout the Scottish MPA process. RYA Scotland has also worked with other marine recreation organisations in the Scottish Boating Alliance, and with the associated cross-party Recreational Boating and Marine Tourism group of Ministers of Scottish Parliament. There has been much stakeholder involvement in the process, including workshops. 

Many of the MPAs are in water that is much too deep to affect recreational sailors and in other areas the features being protected are not affected by recreational craft. Work has been undertaken with SNH to identify habitats that might be at risk from anchoring, with few areas, if any, where anchoring is a real risk to sensitive habitats. Loch Creran has already provided a good example of how to protect vulnerable habitats without adversely affecting boating. 

Northern Ireland

In September 2013 The Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 was enacted which makes provisions for MCZs in Northern Irish territorial waters, under the responsibility of the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). 

Strangford Lough, an existing Marine Nature Reserve, was designated as Northern Ireland's first Marine Conservation Zone in 2013. A consultation on a further four proposed MCZs (Rathlin, Waterfoot, Outer Belfast Lough and Carlingford Lough) closed on 11 March 2016, with a synopsis of responses available from DAERA. All four sites were formally designated in December 2016. 

DAERA also plan to undertake a network assessment in 2017 and will target future MCZ designations to filling network gaps5

RYA Involvement 

The RYA and RYANI considered the Government’s proposals and reflected the interests of affiliated clubs and members in our response to the consultation. This included raising concerns about the impact of potential management restrictions within the new MCZs on activities associated with recreational boating, particularly anchoring, mooring and vessel speed. In response, the Department said it will work closely with stakeholders to develop appropriate management measures for each MCZ post designation. Anchoring in emergency situations will not be restricted. 



[2] Defra. Marine Conservation Zones: Update. (2016).



[5] DAERA. Consultation on Proposed MCZs in Northern Ireland Waters: Synopsis of Consultation Responses. (2016).