The first UK fishing industry-proposed Marine Conservation Zone has been designated as of 31st May 2019. This has been a triumph in cross-sectoral collaboration and represents a win-win for fishing and the marine environment.
The Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009 aimed to create a network of protected marine sites around the UK. This Act, unlike some other environmental designations, must take into account the livelihoods of those who live and work by the sea- primarily our fishermen.
Some offshore sites in the Irish Sea (outside the 12 nautical mile limit) originally proposed as potential Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) through the Irish Sea Conservation Zones project were of huge concern to the Northern Irish fishing industry- much of their fishing activity takes place in these areas where the target species, Nephrops norvegicus (which are commonly known as scampi, langoustine or the Dublin Bay Prawn), make their burrows alongside other deep mud fauna like sea pens, anemones and brittle stars. 80% of the fishing effort in the Irish Sea comes from the NI fleet.
In 2012, industry in Northern Ireland (NI) set about proving the importance of these sites to their livelihoods and sustainability of their businesses and communities. Working with Seafish, the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Poseidon ARM and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA-NI), the fishing intensity on the proposed sites was mapped and measured and the value of landings from the sites assessed. The impacts on the Co. Down fishing villages of Portavogie, Ardglass, Annalong and Kilkeel was shown to be severe.
Industry then went a step further in 2014, identifying sites where the habitat which needs protecting (subtidal mud) can be found in the Irish Sea and where fishing activity is limited and the impacts on local fishermen and communities acceptable (Figure 1). Working with scientists to evaluate the habitat (Figure 2) at these sites, and economists to examine impact to industry, a brand new site, “Queenie Corner”, was proposed for protection by the NI fishing industry, alongside a site held back from Tranche One of the MCZ designations, “West of Walney”. These sites together substituted the contentious sites of Slieve Na Griddle, South Rigg and Mud Hole, and allow the Government target of 600 km2 of subtidal mud habitat to be protected within the Irish Sea.
“West of Walney” MCZ was designated in 2016, and following robust evidence appraisal, Defra designated the industry-proposed “Queenie Corner” site in May 2019. Unfortunately due to the introduction of the Welsh Fisheries Zone, the original site boundary of Queenie Corner had to be modified, reducing the site area to 146 km2. This left a shortfall of 14 km2 needed to meet the subtidal mud target for designation.
Figure 1. UK Fishing effort in the Irish Sea (2014 Vessel Monitoring System data (>12m vessels)) with the three ‘contentious’ sites of Mud Hole, Slieve Na Griddle and South Rigg shown, and the industry-proposed Queenie Corner site that has now been designated (along with South Rigg).
During consultation in 2018, the NI fishing industry recognised this shortfall but put forward a compromise where the area of mud habitat included in the South Rigg proposed MCZ be reviewed, to reduce potential impact on the industry. They contended that if the entire South Rigg mud habitat was included as proposed, this would actually lead to an excess of 82 km2 of subtidal mud designated. Every square kilometre of subtidal mud with its rich populations of langoustines lost to fishing has an impact on the local fishing fleet within NI, with the Portavogie-based fleet especially dependent on this area.
Unfortunately, South Rigg MCZ was designated without any change to its boundary in addition to the West of Walney and Queenie Corner sites, and industry has expressed concerns about the economic impact of this decision. The NI fishing industry however remains encouraged that the contentious sites of Slieve Na Griddle and Mud Hole were not progressed for designation, and that the area proposed by them – Queenie Corner - represents a significant industry contribution to an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas in the UK.
Fishermen understand the need to protect the environment- healthy seas mean healthy catches but the process by which the sites are reached is of utmost importance. By working together the NI fishing industry, scientists, NGOs and Government have come up with sites in the Irish Sea which are acceptable to all. Industry in Northern Ireland want to continue working with Government and scientists to ensure all opportunities to maximise the benefits to industry and the environment are realised and that disproportionate impacts on fishermen and their communities are avoided.
Figure 2. Subtidal mud habitat with burrowing megafauna, such as Nephrops norvegicus, as found in Queenie Corner © Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute