Julie James, Minister for Climate Change
Following the Biodiversity Deep Dive, I have committed to taking steps to strengthen Wales’ Marine Protected Area (MPA) network. This forms part of my response to their recommendation to ‘transform the protected sites series so that it is better, bigger and more effectively connected.’
Our MPA network help to meet commitment to protecting the breath-taking range of habitats and species in Welsh marine waters. Reflecting our domestic and international obligations, we have been able to identify and protect a large proportion of the critically important habitats and species found across the Welsh marine area. Our existing designations have enabled us to take regulatory action to support marine conservation. Sensitive features within Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC), for example, have been protected through the implementation of the Scallop Order (2012). Such interventions allow restoration and refuge for sensitive biodiversity within the sites along with the overspill of benefits into the wider environment beyond the designated area.
Evidence does, however, demonstrate there remain a small number of habitat shortfalls in our network, predominantly in the deeper offshore, requiring consideration to complete our MPA network. Currently, we have only one Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) designated in Wales, Skomer. Designating Skomer as an MCZ has enabled it to benefit from measures under nature conservation legislation to restrict activities Designating Skomer as an MCZ has enabled it to benefit from measures under nature conservation legislation to restrict activities such as the use of mobile fishing gear and the taking, killing or disturbing of wildlife. There is also a 5-knot speed limit within 100m of the shore to reduce disturbance to wildlife.
Features in the offshore, such as seapens and burrowing megafauna in circalittoral fine mud, are currently not represented within the network. With the increasing interest from developments, such as offshore wind, it is imperative that marine planning in Wales takes the opportunity to support sustainable growth of such sectors, whilst also establishing conservation areas as refuge for important habitats and species.
To that end, and in response to the recommendations from our biodiversity deep dive (here), today I am announcing the commencement of our Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) designation pre-consultation engagement process. This is a critical opportunity for stakeholders and communities to engage at the early stages of our work to identify possible sites for protection. The Welsh Government has, and continues, to be committed to co-production and collaboration with stakeholders throughout this process. Work to date has been developed in partnership with the MCZ task and finish group, a key stakeholder group with many Welsh sector representatives. I strongly encourage all interested and concerned parties to engage with the process. Evidence and views provided now will be considered when delineating possible sites and boundaries prior to the formal consultation.
I recognise that designation must be successfully put into practice to effectively protect and enhance our marine environment. Our sites must be well managed and suitable measures are essential to ensure that our efforts are rewarded with enhanced biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Habitats and species within our sites are assessed for their potential vulnerability to given human activities and action will be taken where necessary. The network of marine sites are not de facto closed areas to activities, such as recreation, tourism or fishing. However, where harm is known to be occurring we must take appropriate action and work in collaboration with stakeholders and communities to identify suitable management actions.
As we near the completion of our Marine Protected Area (MPA) network, we will take the opportunity to revisit our sites and their successes. We must assess our network and whether the benefits, such as enhanced ecosystem resilience, and protections we seek are being realised. We must undertake a holistic stocktake and revisit the levels of protection afforded to our sites and whether current management is proportionate and effective. To that end, I will commission work, alongside our existing stakeholder task and finish group, to agree a formal process for this review and the scope of its assessment.
For further information on the launch of the Marine Conservation Zone pre-consultation engagement, please visit the website here where you will find a range of useful materials including the full process documentation, a range of presentations and answers to many of the frequently asked questions.