As environmentalists across the world celebrate World Oceans Day, the UK government has announced plans to almost double its number of Marine Conservation Zones. 

The zones are intended to protect rare sea life and threatened marine habitats around the British coast, and it’s all part of the UK’s “Blue Belt” of conservation areas. 

Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced the plans on Friday, saying that the government would create 41 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) across the UK — in addition to the existing 50.

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“The UK is surrounded by some of the richest and most diverse sea life in the world,” said Gove in a statement. “We must protect these precious habitats for future generations.” 

“Today marks an important step towards completing our Blue Belt,” he added. “We are creating safe havens for our cherished wildlife and putting the UK at the forefront of marine protection.” 

In total, the 41 areas would safeguard almost 12,000 square kilometres of marine habitats — an area almost eight times the size of Greater London.

It will be the most significant expansion of the UK’s “Blue Belt” to date. 

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The first step is a six-week public consultation on the plans, which has already opened. If approved, the sites will be designated within 12 months, according to experts. 

Marine conservationists have welcomed the “fantastic” announcement, with mounting public pressure increasing the urgency of meaningful political action to protect the oceans. 

“It is fantastic to have this last set of sites proposed after much painstaking work since 2009, when the process to select special places deserving protection began," said Sandy Luk, CEO of the Marine Conservation Society.

“With every one of them designated, we will have enough of the sea in protected areas to provide a fantastic foundation for ensuring marine life can recover and thrive,” she added. 

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“[The Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs] DEFRA’s ambition in its 25-year environment plan is to protect entire sites, and this consultation looks at providing areas with a high level of protection,” she said. “It has never been more important that we deliver both of these ambitions.” 

When an area is designated to be a Marine Conservation Zone, it protects the area from activities deemed damaging, such as dredging, and significant coastal or offshore development. No new activities are allowed, and those existing activities are minimised or stopped to allow important habitats to recover. 

“At last we are seeing the opportunity to provide more comprehensive protection across a variety of habitats that can protect fish as well as worms, prawns, reefs, lobsters, coral, and sponges," Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, MCS’ principal specialist on Marine Protected Areas, said.

“So far, management of England’s MCZs hasn’t resulted in any meaningful recovery,” he said. “Perhaps this new approach will finally meet our goals for these important areas.” 

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According to the government, the new sites would also protect rare and threatened species such as a short-snouted seahorse, the stalked jellyfish, and peacock’s tail seaweed. 

While the new sites will reach right across the English coastline — from the South West to Berwick on the Scottish border — they are particularly clustered along the south coast. They also include two sites in Northern Irish offshore waters. 

If approved, the newest additions will take the total area covered by Marine Conservation Zones to over 32,000 square kilometres. 

And Marine Conservation Zones are just one type of Marine Protected Areas in place around the UK. In total, Marine Protected Areas currently cover 209,000 square kilometres. 

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If the new zones are approved, it would take the total area covered to 220,000 square kilometres — about 40% of the UK coast

The announcement also comes at the same time as the G7 summit in Canada — where British Prime Minister Theresa May will call on other world leaders to take action to protect the world’s oceans.

She will urge leaders to work with businesses, industry, and NGOs to find solutions to the issue at the summit, held on Friday and Saturday in Quebec.

“Marine plastics pollution is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world today,” she is expected to say at the summit, describing the UK as a “world leader on this issue.” 

“There is an urgent need for greater global action and co-ordination on marine plastics pollution,” she will add. “This is a global problem, requiring global solutions.” 

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Defend the Planet

The UK Is Set to Protect a Marine Area 8 Times the Size of Greater London

By Imogen Calderwood