Why are marine protected areas important for the UK?

News Source: Sky News

As campaigners call for better protection of UK waters and the wildlife within them, we take a look at the special statuses already in place and what exactly they aim to preserve.

According to the Wildlife Trusts charity, giving protected status to areas is a "tried and tested" way of protecting habitats and wildlife.

We asked Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York and scientific adviser to BBC Blue Planet II, for the lowdown on the protected areas.

:: What is a marine protected area?

Marine protected areas are places where the seabed and overlying waters are given protection from one or more damaging activities for the benefit of wildlife.

:: How much of our oceans are currently protected?

Marine protection lags far behind that on land.

This is partly because human damage came later to the ocean, but also because it has been hard to see what is going on underwater.

The impact of pollution and fishing were hidden until we began to explore the ocean with scuba in the second half of the 20th century.

Today 4% of the world ocean lies within marine protected areas, but just 2% is protected from all fishing and other harmful uses.

The United Nations target, agreed by all coastal nations of the world, is for 10% of the sea to be protected by 2020. Although the rate of establishment is rising fast, we will struggle to hit that target globally.

:: Where are they in the UK?

There are 297 marine protected areas established under international, European and UK laws, which cover just over a quarter of UK seas.

In UK overseas territories, more than two million square kilometres are protected in places like the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean and Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific.

There are plans for more protected areas around remote Atlantic and sub-Antarctic islands.

:: How are they enforced?

At present, there is so little protection given to most UK marine protected areas that enforcement is unnecessary.

Only 0.001% of UK seas are protected from all fishing, and only 1% from seabed-damaging trawls and dredges.

Most areas are protected in name only.

:: Government's promise to protect UK seas a 'sham'

The few that do have regulations are protected mainly through bylaws of inshore fisheries and conservation authorities who patrol coastal seas to six nautical miles offshore.

In Chagos and Pitcairn, by contrast, complete protection from fishing is policed via satellite surveillance and patrol boats.

:: Why do we need more?

The government has recently proposed 41 new marine conservation zones around England to complete the UK network.

More are needed to ensure that all the important marine habitats are protected in several places, and that protected areas are large and close enough to function as a mutually supporting network for the long-term.

:: What difference will they make?

Marine protected areas will make little difference to the state of UK seas until two things happen.

First protection needs to be greatly increased and applied across whole sites rather than small parts of them. To be effective that means at least an outright ban on bottom trawling and dredging - the most destructive ways of fishing - and for many sites a complete ban on fishing.

This will level up UK protection to global standards of good practice.

Second, protection should be given to all the life within sites, not just a few seabed 'features' deemed worthy of attention, like worm reefs.

Areas protected from all fishing in other countries have produced spectacular results, increasing fish stocks an average of seven times over no protection and by more than three times over partial protection. Seabed habitats can recover and flourish only in the absence of trawling and dredging.

:: What happens if we do nothing?

UK seas have been greatly depleted of life by two centuries of industrial fishing.

Today, it is 25 times harder to catch fish than it was in the middle of the 19th century. In the 1880s, a fleet of mainly sailing trawlers landed five times more fish into England and Wales than we do today.

The simple reason is that there are far fewer fish.

Many once common species, like skates, oysters, sturgeon and salmon, have been driven to great rarity by fishing.

Protection will help rebuild populations and because protected areas are 'leaky', spilling fish and their offspring into surrounding areas, people who fish will benefit from protection too.

But protecting the sea is about more than just fishing.

What we often don't appreciate is that abundant marine life is essential to things we take for granted, such as clean, healthy water at the coast.

Overfished and polluted seas promote blooms of toxic algae and jellyfish that can close beaches, shut down coastal power stations and destroy stocks in fish farms.

Climate change is ramping up stresses and without sufficient protection will amplify these problems. A world class network of highly protected marine areas will rebuild the vitality of our seas, ensuring future prosperity for all those who love and depend on them.