While recent elections in the United Kingdom may change the direction that negotiations on Brexit will take, Brexit will still be the single biggest institutional 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 UK’s European partners once it exits the EU. The following article presents extracts from an article written by Jean-Luc Solandt from our member the Marine Conservation Society, Dr Bryce Stewart from the University of York and Alice Puritz from ClientEarth.

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The environment and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are in line for change. Indeed, what will become of the UK’s marine protected areas 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, resulting in Special Areas of Conservation for fauna and flora under the EU Habitats Directive, and Special Protection Areas for birds under the EU Birds Directive. In the marine area, these Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas are known collectively [in Britain] as European Marine Sites.

Two things the UK could do with its European Marine Sites are de-designation (ending the sites’ status as protected areas) or re-designation (changing them to another type of marine protected areas). European Marine Sites currently cover over 12% of UK seas, so losing these sites would be catastrophic for our country’s marine protected areas 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 since 2013 under the Marine and Coastal Access Act to protect additional nationally important species and habitats not already protected by European Marine Sites. However, the laws governing Marine Conservation Zones are weaker than those for European Marine Sites. And regulations to protect European Marine Sitesfrom 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 Marine Conservation Zones. So what would this mean for European Marine Sites? One possibility is that they would all be changed into UK sites (Marine Conservation Zones). Given the weaker protections for Marine Conservation Zones, we would be strongly opposed to this approach. On the contrary, we recommend that once the UK leaves the European Union, we not only keep European Marine Sites as protected areas under UK law but also enhance the current legal protections for Marine Conservation Zones — making them equivalent to the legal protections currently afforded to European Marine Sites. This would favour environmental protection.

The most significant recent progress in UK marine protected areas has been the ‘revised approach’ to fisheries management in European Marine Sites, 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. These measures could be under threat for two reasons when we leave the EU:

  1. 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.

With the UK as an EU Member State, protection of key conservation features within European Marine Sites has so far been upheld by the powerful ‘stick’ of the EU court of justice which fines Member States that have allowed sites to be damaged. The European court of Justice has also previously ruled on failings by the UK and other Member States to both designate European Marine Sites and enact adequate protection measures for them. Such fines tend to focus minds of regulators and governments. 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. After the UK’s formal exit from the European Union, there will be no recourse to an EU court for matters regarding failure of the UK to protect our European marine protected areas.