University research informs the Government’s ambitious plan for conservation

A model of research pioneered by marine scientists at the University of Plymouth has been promoted in the UK government’s new 25 year plan for the environment.

Developed during a decade of work at the Marine Protected Area at Lyme Bay, in Devon and Dorset, the ‘whole site approach’ has demonstrated that a net gain for biodiversity can be achieved if marine systems are managed in a way that supports ecological processes and socioeconomic functions across the entire site and not just select features of conservation importance.

This approach, which is the case of Lyme Bay has brought together stakeholders from science, industry and the community, has received explicit and implicit backing from the Department for the Environment, Fishing and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP), published in January.

The MPA at Lyme Bay was created in July 2008, when the government closed a 206 km2 area to bottom-towed fishing gear, using a Statutory Instrument (SI), with the aim of maintaining the structure of the reef system and aiding the recovery of the marine life inhabiting the seabed region – life that had been damaged by destructive fishing practices. The site did, however, remain open to fishermen using static gear and nets, as well as recreational users. The Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) and Devon and Severn IFCA are responsible for enforcement of the SI and are the lead regulators for fisheries.

Following the closure, Defra and Natural England funded University research into the ecological and socioeconomic impact of the move, and the presentation of non-biased, evidence-based research results was used to instigate discussions with local stakeholders and ease local tensions. It also led to new scientific insight into how reef species were also colonising the areas between the rock habitats.

Not only did the closure have a significant impact upon species recovery, but also a profound one upon the social and economic system, with alternative commercial fishing activities proliferating, and a number of new developments including the creation of a Voluntary Code of Conduct and other specific management measures, led by the Blue Marine Foundation investment in post-catch icing facilities, and the creation and marketing of a new brand for sustainably-sourced fish and shellfish.

“The unique management in Lyme Bay that required the cessation of fishing using bottom-towed gear within the area has demonstrated that the reefs have the capacity for self-repair and self-renewal, in areas that were not previously considered as reef habitat,” 

says Dr Emma Sheehan, Senior Research Fellow. 

“This, in turn, has provided for ecological processes and functions within the site and beyond the delineated boundaries of the conservation features to interact and increase the potential for realisation of ecosystem services for a broad range of stakeholders.”

Experiences learnt are now being drawn on for the management of other marine protected areas. For example, in March 2017, Dr Sheehan was invited to give evidence at the Welsh Assembly about whether scallop dredging should be permitted in Cardigan Bay MPA.

“The evidence from Lyme Bay is the only (marine) example of a long term, integrated ecological and socioeconomic study of a conservation measure in the UK,” 

adds Dr Sian Rees, Senior Research Fellow with SWEEP at the University. 

“The “whole site approach” for MPA management has been promoted in the new 25-year plan for the environment as part of a more ambitious approach to marine biodiversity conservation that will underpin natural capital-led economic growth.”