Wholesale review of Marine Conservation Zones in port areas needed

Ahead of the expected third and final tranche of Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) designations in English waters, the British Ports Association has called on Environment Secretary Michael Gove to review the impact of all existing management measures on port operations and urgently examine the implications a specific designation which could lead to a ban on anchoring of commercial and recreational ships as well as fishing activities within a statutory harbour area.

Marine Conservation Zones were introduced following the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and are designed to protect marine wildlife, habitats, geology and geomorphology. They can be designated anywhere in English and Welsh territorial and UK offshore waters. The law allows the Government to take social and economic factors into account when designating an MCZ but British Ports Association Chief Executive, Richard Ballantyne said that, too often, these concerns are ignored:

“We are supportive of efforts to preserve and improve our marine environment but this must be done in a way that is supported by evidence and does not unnecessarily threaten jobs and industry.”

“We have seen many MCZs designated in harbour areas since their introduction 8 years ago. The implications of these proposals have not been thought through properly. Although well-meaning and based on good principles these sites have created some unintended consequences of limiting development and disadvantaging UK ports.”

“This is not about the ports industry rejecting the concept of marine designations or environmental protection. We support the development of a network of sites and want to both preserve and encourage improvement in our marine environment. However we do think the policy should be focused away from existing social economic activities and that protective measures should not restrict port and other activities.”

The UK’s food and energy security depend’s on ports being able to operate efficiently in order to keep the costs of everyday goods down. Ports also provide important hubs of coastal tourism and employment and Mr Ballantyne continued:

“As an industry, we also provide over 101,000 jobs and support many thousands more, but there is a growing feeling in the industry that the economic and other benefits that ports provide are taken for granted and that well-meaning but poorly designed designations can be piled on in what are effectively industrial areas without consequence.”

“Harbour areas cover a tiny proportion of the UK marine area – it is not beyond the realms of credibility to protect our wonderful marine wildlife and habitats without piling additional pressures onto ports. Many of our European competitors have adopted a policy of limiting the impacts of such measures within port areas and we would like to see assurances that future MCZs and other designations are excluded from port limits. We are also keen to work with the regulators to examine ways to limit the impacts of existing zones.”

One such proposed MCZ will cover the entirety of Tor Bay, which is an historic anchorage and safe haven for shipping. Commenting on the proposed ‘Torbay Extension MCZ’ specifically, Mr Ballantyne said:

“The Government’s own advice admits that the proposed Torbay Extension MCZ is designed to protect a habitat that is widespread around the coats of the UK and Europe and not of ‘conservation interest’.”

“Ships have been anchoring in Torbay for centuries and it would be unfortunate if this anchorage – one of the best sheltered anchorages in the south west of England in terms of proximity to the Atlantic – was to be thrown into doubt due to an ill-advised designation based on flimsy evidence. The area also covers Brixham one of England’s main fishing ports and a host of recreational leisure activities supporting many jobs in the region. It is ironic that we have just emerged from a winter in which storms including Storm Emma have likely rearranged the entire bay’s seabed several times yet vessels seeking shelter from such weather or resupply may have to head elsewhere.”

The BPA’s letter to Michael Gove sets out the industry’s growing frustration that ports – which carry 95% of UK trade – are being taken for granted. Government routinely underestimates the impact these designations can have, particularly on smaller ports and harbours that support regional industries and jobs.

Marine designations are designed for positive reasons to protect and maintain the marine environment however they can have a number of unintended consequences for economic activities. Under regulations stemming from the EU Habitats Directive, designations can introduce major monitoring and assessment burdens on ports and developers operating in the marine environment. Designations can also introduce new restrictive and expensive conditions on consents and limit the use of permitted development rights which many ports have used previously, often for many decades.

Ports are economic areas being built up over many years, supporting jobs and businesses. They are often at the heart of their communities supporting fishing, leisure, trade as well as being a vital transport link.

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