Governing Marine Protected Areas: Lyme Bay

There is one very simple way cut back to the story this whole process started with. Put in place what was intended from the outset. No Take Zones - areas in which there is no fishing of any kind - are the simplest designation you can have
The scientific case for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is now overwhelming. The bigger question is how can they be managed more effectively? HORATIO MORPURGO reports
When conservation and utilitarian aims cannot agree, there has to be an overarching authority, committed to long-term, wider-scale objectives, which is prepared to make a decision in a particular context and enforce it with legal sanctions

Fisheries scientists have long challenged the ‘sloppy thinking' behind Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These are too often called for, they argue, ‘on the basis of close to zero evidence', by people whose real concern is not to conserve marine habitats but to ‘instil a sense of moral panic'. Fisheries scientists sum up their own approach, by contrast, as ‘rational, evidence-based and phased'.

On a scale of one to ten, then, how close to ‘zero evidence' is well over 5000 scientific papers on MPAs since 1980? Those who have read even a fraction of those 5000 scientific papers will find them analytical in content and stone-cold sober in tone. They are anything but ‘romantic'.

The next routine objection used to be that MPAs only work in tropical waters and are no help with conserving mobile species. You hear that one less these days. Biogenetic studies, a recent innovation, may be conducted in temperate waters or tropical. They allow us to observe how the fish in any given area are inter-related. What they are showing is that a fish we might think of as a single mobile species - cod, say - is actually a conglomerate of many sub-populations, each adapted to a particular habitat. These sub-populations move around less than was thought, so that large MPAs along Norway's coast, for example, have proved effective in conserving one such population.

Lobsters responded quickly to the establishment of a No Take Zone in Lamlash Bay, Scotland, just as they did off Lundy, England. The size and number of scallops off the Isle of Man rose sharply following the closure there. The number of lobsters and scallops, both, in Lyme Bay, has soared since its closure to towed gear in 2008. In this latter case a 2015 report from Plymouth University drew more tentative conclusions about the recovery of benthic habitat more generally. As with Skomer in the 1990s, this may prove a slower and more complicated process then some might have envisaged. But even for fish which do wander ocean-wide, a well-established feeding area or spawning grounds, like seagrass or kelp beds, regularly visited at crucial junctures in its life-cycle, may benefit from protection.   

Another line popular with fisheries scientists is their claim to represent those who understand that ‘these are people's livelihoods we are talking about'. This will never have occurred, runs the subtext, to anyone arguing for marine conservation. But take just one marine reserve - Lyme Bay, again. Two papers studying the socio-economic impacts of the 2008 closures have appeared in 2016 alone, one by Sian Rees at Plymouth and another from Rebecca Singer of University College, London. This is in addition to an earlier report on the subject from Stephen Mangi. Rees' work analysed data going back to 2008, whilst Singer conducted 25 interviews around the Bay in the summer of 2016, of which more later.

Given all this research, how to explain, then, the dismissive language used by those who oppose marine protection? As in other contexts, such language operates mainly as a screen behind which people take shelter from issues with which they are either unwilling or unable to engage. Such talk will, of course, be encouraged, and funded, by those who stand to gain financially from a lowering of the tone and poorer understanding all round.

When conservation and utilitarian aims cannot agree, there has to be an overarching authority, committed to long-term, wider-scale objectives, which is prepared to make a decision in a particular context and enforce it with legal sanctions

‘Collective learning', where fishermen and scientists work alongside, is only one of many ways identified in Peter Jones' Governing Marine Protected Areas (Routledge, 2014) to make MPAs more effective. Jones grew up next to the sea in Poole, Dorset, and is today a marine ecologist, Reader in Environmental Governance at University College, London. His book emerged from years of engagement with MPAs. It compares the effectiveness of different management regimes not only in one country or region but around the world. 


Making Marine Protected Areas More Effective

The emphasis in Governing MPAs is less on making the case for them as one way, among others, to restore the ocean to health. That argument has been won. The question now is a more practical one: how to make MPAs more effective.

Jones examines 20 case studies from around the world, from a range of different contexts. He has looked at No Take Zones and Partially Protected Areas, at reserves which have succeeded and at those which have either not or where the outcome is still unclear. He has looked at countries with developed and less well developed economies, countries with tropical and temperate climates, at reserves where a firm legal framework is in place and those in which that framework is weaker. Each case must be studied on its own merits. Any comparisons between them must then be made on a rigorously empirical basis.  

From close study of twenty reserves, he has derived five broad categories of ‘incentives', which have all been shown, under different circumstances, to make a reserve more effective. The five incentives are economic (harnessing market forces), interpretative (awareness-raising), knowledge or ‘collective learning' (where fishermen and marine biologists collaborate on research), legal (political will, infringements punished) and participative (involving as many parties as possible in decision-making).

Jones' familiarity with the management structure of so many different reserves makes his book refreshingly clear-sighted about what he calls ‘governance challenges'. Consensus is not always possible. Ecologists, he argues, should be clear about their motives with themselves and others from the outset. Conservation aims and utilitarian ends may contradict one another and we should not shy away from this. Well-informed and widespread concern about the state of the oceans is now a significant factor and there is no reason why this should not influence the uses we make of our seas. When the science indicates that No Take Zones would work, for example, as they would in Lyme Bay, they should be established.

In dismissing such calls as ‘romantic', the industry only shows itself to be lagging behind that wider unease about the state of the marine environment. At the same time, environmentalists need to be aware that imposed solutions, or ‘fortress conservation', carries its own risks. Just as there can be a ‘tyranny of the local', in which irresponsible ‘small-scale' fishing practises continue, so there can be a failure by marine biologists to engage creatively with those local fishermen who can and want to help.


Political Will Is Always The Decisive Factor

Jones' solution is a ‘balancing act' in which the strong hand of the state, the ‘invisible hand' of the market and the ‘democratic hands' of the people are effectively combined. His findings, across all variables - economic and environmental - show that NGO or private participation may take many useful forms, but political will is always the decisive factor. The state may devolve power but should never relinquish it. When conservation and utilitarian aims cannot agree, there has to be an overarching authority, committed to long-term, wider-scale objectives, which is prepared to make a decision in a particular context and enforce it with legal sanctions.  

Developed over many years of close observation around the world, this template was applied to Lyme Bay by Rebecca Singer, of University College London, through 25 extensive interviews over the summer of 2016. Through its application of Jones' empirical approach, her report raises questions worth considering. The Reserve Brand, for example, is one of several innovations introduced by the Blue Marine Foundation. It is a scheme whereby supermarkets and other outlets agree to pay more for fish from the MPA because newly installed chilling facilities can guarantee freshness.

Singer notes that none of the fishermen she spoke to were using the Reserve Brand to ‘catch less for more', though its aim was to reduce fishing pressure. She notes that the overfishing of whelks from the western end of the MPA continues. And that the quota for boats which have signed up to the voluntary agreement were set at the top end or above what they were already catching.

None of this is to deny what has been achieved. A dredger operating in the MPA was recently fined £37,000. As of 2011 the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs), of which there are two in Lyme Bay, have patrol vessels and much improved means of gathering information, both through satellite, radar, VMS (Vessel Monitoring Systems) and through good old-fashioned local intel.

Singer also reported on forthcoming consultations to lift the order (or Statutory Instrument (SI)) imposed in 2008, which originally closed sixty sq. miles of the sea-bed to all towed gear. Research in Cardigan Bay, commissioned as part of a similar consultation, was interpreted by some as a justification for readmitting scallop-dredgers to a protected area. Concern has been expressed about the scientific robustness of that research…;

It is in instances like this that Jones' case by case approach proves its worth. As already mentioned, the Lyme Bay MPA falls under the jurisdiction of two IFCAs. This allows ‘locally tailored management' by people who are very familiar with the site. Power has been devolved. And this can work well. Rob Clark heads the IFCA for the eastern half of the MPA. With a background in ecology, he argues that managing the site through byelaws allows him to add to the protected areas already in existence. When I ask him how much scope there will be for dredging to resume between the reefs: his answer is quite clear: ‘None'. The closed area will remain closed.

It's worth adding that Rob Clark's ‘Southern IFCA', which oversees inshore waters from the Hampshire / Sussex border to the Dorset / Devon border, has a different history from its western neighbour, the ‘Devon & Severn IFCA'. As Dorset fisherman Dave Sales put it to me: ‘The industrial fleet is not a big political player in this part of the country. So the byelaws have evolved differently here. They favour the smaller boats which do less damage.'


The Industrial Fleet is a serious political player

When I contact Tim Robbins at the Devon & Severn IFCA, which has authority for the western end of Lyme Bay, sure enough, the tone is different. Neither should this come as a surprise. The industrial fleet is a serious political player further west, where the byelaws have traditionally favoured the larger boats.

‘It is not possible to say that nothing will ever change in the area, even with the SI still in place changes could have been made to management.' Mr Robbins informs me. ‘There may be pressure in the future from the mobile gear fishing industry to have areas where there are no features of the site present to open it again to fishing.' He understands that a review of the SI was requested by ‘local fishing interests.'

Defra did not reply to emails requesting information about new research recently conducted inside the closed area but Mr Robbins did respond: ‘The vessels and the local knowledge of the fishermen make them ideal partners for the researchers.' Un-controversial enough. ‘No matter what part of the industry they come from,' he went on. That second clause is worth a closer look. What exactly is it that we would have to learn from the dredging industry about conserving marine habitats? When an area of ancient woodland is to be preserved, is it the logging companies we consult? When we protect a meadow, do we check if that is OK with Bayer first?

Devon & Severn are not about to readmit the dredgers to the MPA but they are plainly allowing themselves wriggle-room. ‘It is not possible to say nothing will ever change.' Indeed not. But why the platitudes? Why is such care being taken not to rule out certain possibilities? The two IFCAs approach this matter differently, as they would, given their different histories. That is not a problem in itself but it does raise an important question: how far do you devolve powers before you have effectively relinquished them? Who has the final say on something like this?

It is true that IFCAs can bring to bear a detailed knowledge of the local scene. The intervention of the Blue Marine Foundation in Lyme Bay, the research into the sea-bed's recovery carried out by Plymouth University and the fishermen since 2008, the setting up of the Lyme Bay working group - all of these have contributed to success. But Jones' book demonstrates that right around the world MPAs run into the same problem. Without ‘state steer', without political will from central government, they don't work.

Ben Bradshaw, Minister for Fisheries in 2006 and closely involved with the build-up to the closure in 2008, is still MP for Exeter. His government's establishment of that original MPA was an act of far-sighted political bravery. Governments since, ‘greenest ever' ones included, have rarely matched that courage.

‘I would be very concerned by anything constituting a weakening of protection for these unique habitats,' Bradshaw told me. ‘If the government's motives are to extend greater protection to vulnerable sites, or protect them in a more intelligent way, I would welcome it. My worry is that given the government's reluctance to establish an ecologically coherent network, this might fall into a similar pattern.'

Many would share such concerns. Rob Clark might argue that the introduction of new byelaws in 2014 was not glamorous enough for NGOs and the media, who now wake up to what is happening and are both suspicious and poorly informed. But he himself contrasts the money for research which was available after the 2008 closure with the near absence of such new funding in 2014. It is the research in Lyme Bay that has made and still makes the real story, not the media or the NGOs.

That story is, in essence, not a complicated one. It has been obscured over the past decade by a thicket of acronyms that has grown up around this subject, penetrable only by the most determined. What was the MPA is now the ‘Lyme Bay and Torbay Site of Community Interest'. By next year they will have hit upon an even less memorable name for it, so I'm sticking with MPA. How many people really know their SCIs and SACs and MMOs and MCZs and NTZs apart? In her recent report, Rebecca Singer noted that even those closely involved with managing Lyme Bay complain about how unnecessarily complicated the different designations have become.

But Rob Clark may well be right that NGOs and journalists should have paid more attention to the byelaws that were brought in in 2014, which do indeed protect more reef than was protected before. Further byelaws in 2016 expanded the area again. The stories we tell about this, and the way we tell them, matter. But you could also argue that to overplay such relatively small gains, in the absence of new funding for research, is to lock low ambition into the whole process.

For those members of the public who do not have time to memorise all the acronyms, this story is the same now as it was in 2008. The closure of a protected area to towed gear. Certainly, you can and should grow that area, and you should try different conservation regimens within it. But once you start with ‘maybe we'll let a few dredgers back in after all, just here and there', you weaken that core story. It is from that core story that all the others flow. We tamper with it, or allow others to, at our peril.

There is one very simple way cut back to the story this whole process started with. Put in place what was intended from the outset. No Take Zones, areas in which there is no fishing of any kind, are the simplest designation you can have. They are cheap to maintain, they are popular with the public and they are vital to greater understanding. Without them ‘we don't know what the sea might regenerate towards', as Jean-Luc Solandt of the Marine Conservation Society recently put it. Without No Take Zones, we can't know the difference between natural and anthropogenic disturbance.

The government will consult on re-opening protected areas when the scallop dredgers ask. Why will they not consult on No Take Zones when the best informed marine biologists are unanimous on the need for them? The government insists on features-based measures, which are far more costly to define and monitor, and then cuts funding for research.

Singer noted that the fishermen who have helped for years now with studies of the bay's recovery are, understandably, asking what was the point if the dredgers are allowed back in to smash things up all over again? Areas of soft sediment rapidly ‘self-repaired' after 2008, transforming our understanding of what the sea-bed can do when we leave it alone. We would never have learnt this if we had allowed dredging to continue ‘here and there'. And that knowledge would not have been available to those managing other MPAs.


Why is the ‘non-reef' habitat treated as disposable?

As the Third Tranche of MCZ sites is selected, the main gaps in the network as we have it are sand- and mud-based habitats. So why is anyone speaking of ‘non-reef' habitat in Lyme Bay as if it were disposable, when it is precisely non-reef habitat we are needing to protect more of this time around? It is the response of this very habitat to conservation measures that Plymouth University has been studying for almost a decade. We interrupt that experiment because the dredgers consider their profits to be in need of a further boost? 

The website of the National Federation of Fishermen's Associations ( is a useful guide to what is really driving calls to ‘review' the Lyme Bay SI. The site announced new research last year ‘to justify what levels of bottom towed gear can be carried out within MPAs and still encourage conservation'. That might sound like Monty Python but this is no joke. Note the Freudian slip: ‘justify'.

The purpose of research is to test for or discover something you don't yet know. You don't know what will happen to a habitat that has been hammered by dredges over decades, so you leave it alone and you wait and see. Then you wait and see some more. But the aim of this research is perfectly clear in advance. Its purpose, as its supporters readily admit, is to ‘justify' the readmission of towed gear to closed areas. Its purpose is a return on capital at any cost to the sea-bed.

In early 2014, three storms hit Lyme Bay of a magnitude that one would usually expect every fifty years or so. Equipment being used to study the impact of potting at different intensities, deployed over several years, was swept away. Scoured sea fans and dead clean scallops were washed up in enormous numbers. That the site's recovery was already being studied has made this an ideal opportunity to observe how protected sites recover compared to unprotected ones. It is too soon yet for conclusive results. Research takes time.

But you might well ask why ‘review' the Lyme Bay SI of all places, where so much money and effort have been invested in research since the closure and still are being? The answer of course is that you choose Lyme Bay precisely to establish the principle that scientific research, no matter how exhaustively carried out, shall never override commercial interests. It is in Lyme Bay above all that this point must be made. For some, such ‘reviews' are a timely reminder of why the Statutory Instrument was needed in the first place.

It is a reminder of more than that. Jones' book is rich in foreign examples which those who care about marine protection's future in the UK would do well to ponder. It was the Blue Marine Foundation which stepped in to try and build consensus after the tug of wills which led to the closure in Lyme Bay. In the Os Miñarzos reserve, off Galicia in northern Spain, a comparable role was played by the WWF, which has put in place a regimen that both favours local fishermen and has included them in the design of the reserve.


Strength of local feeling should not be underestimated

The climate of opinion on this is global. The Galapagos might seem a world away, with a level of economic development and legal institutions that are quite different from those in the UK. But the exclusion of interlopers, measures to improve the income of low-impact local fishermen and so decrease pressure on stocks, biologists and fishermen working together on stock assessment - all of these have both worked there and have close counterparts in Lyme Bay.

Neither should strength of local feeling about this be underestimated, wherever in the world you are. When the Government of Colombia granted licenses to explore for oil inside a marine reserve, this was challenged by the MPA agency and the government decision was overturned in the high court. When dredgers were re-admitted to the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in Cardigan Bay in 2012, conservationists threatened to take the government to the European Court of Justice. The government ‘revised' its approach.

We shall not have to trouble our heads with European justice for very much longer and the dredgers are already back in Cardigan Bay. They think Lyme Bay is next and they think that because they can't tell the difference between responsible fishing and marine profiteering. They will discover that the public does know the difference.

This Author

Horatio Morpurgo lives about a mile from Lyme Bay, was involved with the campaign to establish an MPA there and has been writing about these issues for 10 years. The Paradoxall Compass, his book about the West Country, the sea and the origins of modern science, will be published by Notting Hill Editions in June, 2017.





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