Conservationists have called for the creation of a further 48 protected areas in English waters that would "fill in the gaps" of a national network designed to ensure healthy and productive seas.

If designated, they would add to the 50 existing marine conservation zones (MCZs) and create an "ecologically coherent network" where habitats and wildlife could flourish, according to a report from the Wildlife Trusts.

The report, The Case For More Conservation Zones, will be presented to environment minister Thérèse Coffey and is published ahead of plans for a third and final tranche of MCZs, which the government will consult on and designate in the next two years.

The Trusts call for the government to acknowledge the widespread public support for marine protection and be "as ambitious as possible" to allow England's seas to recover and thrive.

Unprecedented opportunity

Joan Edwards, the Wildlife Trusts' head of living seas, said the government had an unprecedented opportunity. "If the government lives up to its stated commitments, such a network would put us at the forefront of worldwide marine conservation.

"Designating these 48 wild havens in England as marine conservation zones would go some way to guaranteeing a future for the extraordinarily diverse natural landscapes that exist beneath the waves off our coast."

The 48 areas proposed would fill in the gaps in the "blue belt" around England's coast, the report said, protecting wildlife including seahorses, starfish and seabirds. They would also support commercially important species such as plaice, lemon sole and lobsters.

Where are they?

Among the zones recommended are Compass Rose in the northern North Sea, which provides spawning and nursery grounds for fish including plaice, herring, lemon sole, sandeel and sprat; the deeper water sediment habitat of Silver Pit in the southern North Sea; the mud of Hythe Bay in the eastern English Channel; some of the UK's deepest and largest shelf sand ridges in the western Channel and a specific site for the white-beaked dolphin in Lyme Bay.

One of the sites, to the west of the Isle of Man, includes a rare breeding population of the ocean quahog, a clam that can live up to 500 years.

The report also calls for sites in the Irish Sea to be designated, including three proposed zones that have been held up by concerns on the impact of the Northern Ireland nephrops or scampi fishery.

It also includes recommendations for six sites in Welsh offshore waters, which have been postponed as they await devolution. "These sites risk falling between the political gaps, but they are too important in completing the network to be forgotten about." It also calls for more progress in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The first tranche of 27 MCZs was designated in 2013, and a second tranche added in early 2016.  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. Our response to the consultations built upon and our engagement on MCZs since stakeholder engagement began in 2009.

Photo credit: Cuckoo Wrasse by Paul Naylor / The Wildlife Trusts