Published on MPA News (https://mpanews.openchannels.org)
Perspective: What does Brexit mean for UK MPAs?
By Jean-Luc Solandt, Bryce Stewart, and Alice Puritz
Editor’s note: Last year, MPA News published a brief article on how the UK’s Brexit vote in June 2016 — in which citizens
chose for the country to exit the European Union — might impact the country’s marine protected areas. The perspective piece
below offers deeper insights on the potential future for UK MPAs. It also demonstrates how change in national governance can
cause an array of follow-on impacts on protected areas.
Jean-Luc Solandt is Principal Specialist, MPAs, for the UK Marine Conservation Society. Bryce Stewart is a Lecturer in the
Environment Department at the University of York (UK). Alice Puritz is a lawyer with ClientEarth, an NGO that applies legal
expertise to conservation issues.
Brexit may be the single biggest constitutional change that will happen to the UK in its history. The UK government and civil
service are still coming to terms with the process of change, the complexity of developing new laws, and the new political
horizon of working with our European partners once the UK exits the EU.
The environment and MPAs are also in line for change. Indeed, what will become of the UK’s MPA network when over 50% of
our sites were set up under EU laws? Designation of the UK’s first large, significant MPAs started because of EU laws drawn
from the Bern Convention, an international treaty on protecting wildlife. These EU laws resulted in Special Areas of
Conservation (SACs) for fauna and flora in the UK under the EU Habitats Directive, and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for
birds under the EU Birds Directive. In the marine area, these SACs and SPAs are known collectively as European Marine
Sites, or EMSs.
How might Brexit affect the UK’s MPAs?
Two things the UK could do with its EMSs are de-designation (ending the sites’ status as protected areas) or re-designation
(changing them to another type of MPA).
Civil servants in the marine program of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have said in
public fora that they do not want to de-designate sites set up under EU laws. These individuals want to ensure this key element
of the MPA network remains in place. European Marine Sites currently cover over 12% of UK seas, so losing these sites would
be catastrophic for our country’s MPA network. These MPAs are also designated in areas of the most important habitats and
species for European biodiversity and wildlife, which are also nationally important. So we believe their continued protection
should be given the highest priority going forward.
The UK government has designated 50 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) since 2013 under the Marine and Coastal Access
Act to protect additional nationally important species and habitats not already protected by European sites. However, the laws
governing MCZs are weaker than those for EMSs. EMS legislation, for example, places protected areas where there are the
most outstanding examples of EU importance, regardless of the presence of current or potential business interests. MCZs do
not have that same siting requirement. And regulations to protect EMSs from damaging activities — including that developers,
fishers, and heavy industries need to show their activities will not have adverse effects on the sites before being allowed to
proceed — are more restrictive than those for MCZs. (Indeed, there is pressure from some commercial groups now to repeal or
amend the UK law that transposes key EU environmental legislation into UK domestic legislation — which could weaken the
relatively strong protections for the UK’s EMS sites.)
So what would this mean for EMSs? One possibility is that they would all be changed into UK sites (MCZs). Given the weaker
protections for MCZs, we would be strongly opposed to this approach. On the contrary, we recommend that once the UK
leaves the EU, we not only keep EMSs as protected areas under UK law but also enhance the current legal protections for
MCZs — making them equivalent to the legal protections currently afforded to EMSs. This would favour environmental
What would losing EU MPAs mean for stakeholders?
The most significant recent progress in UK MPAs has been the ‘revised approach’ to fisheries management in EMSs, initiated
in 2012. This significant policy change, and subsequent development of management measures, has resulted in over 40 local
laws in England and Scotland to ban or restrict trawling and dredging from a large number of coastal EMSs (over 45 sites;
about 6000 km2 of our seas).
These measures could be under threat for two reasons when we leave the EU: (1) as mentioned above, some commercial
stakeholders are calling for the UK legislation that implements EU law to be repealed or amended; and (2) if this happens, the
work that has been invested by regulators, fishers, environmentalists, and central government since 2012 to develop these
MPA management measures, and the local laws that implement them, could also be lost. This would be a tragedy for UK
marine conservation and well-managed inshore fisheries.
If the government wanted to get rid of EMSs, what challenge could be made
by civil society?
With the UK as an EU Member State, protection of key conservation features within EMSs has so far been upheld by the
powerful ‘stick’ of the EU court of justice (ECJ). ECJ fines Member States that have allowed sites to be damaged. Fines of 10s
of thousands of pounds per day have been enough to result in rapid protection measures for places like Strangford Lough in
Northern Ireland. The ECJ has also previously ruled on failings by the UK and other Member States to both designate EMSs
and enact adequate protection measures for them. Such fines tend to focus minds of regulators and governments.
After the UK’s formal exit from the EU (likely to be April 2019), there will be no recourse to an EU court for matters regarding
failure of the UK to protect our European MPAs. These cases have often been initiated by civil society groups (e.g., NGOs)
informing the European Commission of breaches to protection measures within sites. Subsequent threats of legal action and
large fines have pushed the designation of sites and management measures.
How is the full network of UK MPAs progressing?
There has been a delay in designating a third and final tranche of domestic MCZs in UK waters (of up to a further 50 sites)
whilst the UK Government absorbs the implications of Brexit. Defra is one of the smallest UK government departments yet has
the most legislation to consider for keeping or changing under Brexit. So there is a great deal of pressure on the civil service to
come up with a Brexit plan whilst also including consideration of a further round of MCZs. UK government will develop a ‘Great
Repeal Bill’ that should immediately transfer and retain UK laws derived from EU legislation when we leave in April 2019,
including EU-derived MPA legislation. Fisheries are a much bigger political and constitutional headache for Defra in terms of
agreeing to future sharing of quotas, and access of foreign fleets to the UK EEZ.
Given past access of foreign fishers to UK offshore waters, what will happen
to MPAs beyond territorial waters but within the UK EEZ?
A negotiation will need to be undertaken — not only with the EU as an entity but with other Member States individually. In
theory, all options are on the table. The UK could potentially exclude all EU boats from our offshore MPAs or even from the UK
EEZ altogether. However, such a move seems unlikely given it would threaten trading arrangements with the EU, which are
vital to the UK economy. In contrast, there appears to be a stronger chance of foreign fishers being excluded from the UK 6-
12nm zone, where they have had historical access rights under the London Convention (a fisheries agreement that pre-dates
the EU). In some cases, this has led to huge trawlers fishing in the same grounds as small (<10 m) UK inshore fishing boats.
If Scotland leaves the UK but stays in the EU, what would this mean for UK
The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has indicated her desire for a second referendum on Scottish independence,
largely so that Scotland can stay in the EU. Should this come to pass then Scotland would obviously retain its EMSs and
continue to implement its national MPA network, in which fishing is being increasingly well managed. While this situation may
appear to therefore consolidate the UK MPA network overall, it would leave the rest of the UK increasingly isolated in
negotiations with Europe over fisheries and access to offshore MPAs.
For more information:
Jean-Luc Solandt, Marine Conservation Society, UK. Email: Jean-Luc.Solandt@mcsuk.org
Source URL: https://mpanews.openchannels.org/news/mpa-news/perspective-what-does-brexit-mean-uk-mpas