It has been a long and controversial process. Initially the MCZ regional pilot programs, that brought together scientists and stakeholders in four regional projects , recommended the creation of 127 sites that formed the basis of an ecologically coherent network. This stakeholder driven process was challenging but managed to bring together diverse opinions and perspectives to build a constituency over MPA sites. The process was praised by a JNCC and Natural England scientific review, particularly in light of the ability to raise awareness and support for the extensive proposed network. The scientific review by the agencies endorsed the proposed MPA network citing that it makes 'good progress to an ecologically coherent network and minimises impacts of socio-economic interests' but noted, alongside the UK government Marine Protected Areas Science Advisory Panel that considerable data gaps existed in understanding the condition of sites.
In December 2012 the UK Environment minister announced the launch of the MCZ consultation, proposing 31 sites across England and a considerably smaller number of sites as identified in the regional programs. The reasoning purportedly lay in the lack of an evidence base to identify and manage the full suite of sites and that the proposals would be designated in tranches. 'No take reference areas' have virtually been dropped from the process. Despite public outcry over the streamlined number of sites that number has been cut further with today's final designation of 27 Nature Conservation Zones.
Disappointing considering the enormous effort of the regional programs that developed consensus over 127 sites? Yes. Publicly controversial? Yes. Something still to celebrate? Yes. Despite only a fifth of recommended sites surviving the process, these are still locally important areas that will improve management of the marine environment. The critical question is do they form an ecologically coherent network? That's highly unlikely. The positive impact will more likely be local rather than national. Looking forward, the appetite for future designations will be low, at least in the immediate future. However the ongoing pressure for marine conservation outcomes that restore the health of our seas will be an important driver for the management of existing sites and designation of new areas. But for now... 27 new MPAs have come into existence and will form part of the toolbox that protects and manages UK seas.