Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) have been in the headlines recently following the publication of an inquiry into marine science by a group of MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee and in an open letter sent to David Cameron by a group of 86 scientists and academics.

The MP's report accuses Government of letting the project flounder, of shifting the goalposts over scientific evidence and says that the project lacks clear criteria.

The open letter accuses David Cameron of falling "far short" of delivering a pledge to create a network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs).

Project floundering?

Is the project floundering or is Governments approach a pragmatic one?

As a key stakeholder in the MCZ process over the past three years, the RYA has been encouraged by the measured approach Government has adopted by consulting on just 31 of the 127 proposed sites as a first phase.

Given that the process of developing a network of MCZs is entirely new, the questions over the credibility of the scientific data and the impact the zones could have it appears the approach, on the face of it, is a sensible one.

Shifting the goalposts on marine science

The MP's report criticises the Government's changing position on the quality of scientific evidence required to support MCZ site selection.

Ministers however, feel that the scientists failed to deliver the evidence required to support the need to create the zones.

The Ecological Network Guidance for the MCZ process uses the term 'best available evidence' however, as the MCZ process developed, Government made it clear that 'robust evidence showing the presence or extent of marine features' was required.

Rather than interpreting this as 'political manoeuvring' as reported by some, it can be viewed as demonstrating the evolutionary nature of the MCZ process that was only to be expected.

An evolutionary process

The stakeholder led approach to determining MCZs, which involved around one million local people according to the report, has never been trialled before so some adaptation was inevitable.

At the beginning of the process it wasn't clear what level or quality of scientific data was available. As the process evolved it became apparent that in many areas the data that was being used to select sites was inaccurate and unsuitable.

The RYA has been involved in the MCZ process from the outset both nationally and at a local stakeholder level and has consistently argued that a sound evidence base should underpin designation of MCZs in order to justify any negative socio-economic impacts for recreational boating and coastal communities.

Lack of clear criteria

The lack of clarity on management measures (the potential controls that may be imposed to manage MCZs) has, in our view, created uncertainty regarding the outcome of the MCZ process for all stakeholders and has at times limited the value of their input.

The Committee MPs share the RYA's view that management measures should be included as part of the selection and designation of MCZs.

Potential impact on livelihoods

Stakeholders have always understood the Government's view that designation and determination of management should be separate. It is our view, and that of many others, that this separation is inappropriate.

Given the potential of MCZs to impact on livelihoods and lifestyles it is essential that the two be considered together in order to really understand what the designation of MCZs might mean for people around the country.

This report will now pass to Richard Benyon (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Environment) and his team for consideration and potential action.

The RYA will continue to be engaged in the MCZ process and take the opportunity to raise these points in its on-going dialogue with Defra (Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

The RYA is supportive of the aspiration for 'clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas'.

The Science and Technology Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Government Office for Science and associated public bodies.

Read the Commons Science and Technology Committees Report

Read more on Marine Conservation Zones.

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Image credit: Jim Greenfield and Natural England.