So what's a marine reserve anyway?

Before I go much further, it's probably a good idea to explain what I mean by "marine reserve" in this context.

Essentially, a marine reserve is one type of marine protected area (MPA), which are areas which are managed with the primary purpose of conserving the marine environment.

Reserves normally offer the strictest protection possible for nature. These can also be called things like "marine sanctuaries" or "no-take zones", but broadly speaking, in such sites nature is allowed to recover and thrive, and only scientific research and carefully managed activities such as diving and snorkelling are generally allowed. This compares to other types of MPA which are more multiple use and allow more things to happen in them.

We know that marine reserves can work for both nature and people. The body of scientific evidence showing their ecological and socio-economic benefits is extensive, strong and clearly established (for example comprehensively summarised in a bunch of scientific papers here, here, here, here and here, as well as over 100 peer reviewed studies of New Zealand’s marine reserves as summarised here).

So, these reserves should be a key part of any ecologically coherent network of MPAs, right?

In the UK, however, less than 0.001% of UK seas would fall into the strict marine reserve category (less than the size of Richmond Park), where all extractive activities (dredging, fishing etc) are prohibited. In effect there are three such reserves covering less than 7km2, along with a couple of other "no-take zones" for fisheries.. This compares to to about 24% total UK MPA coverage (below) which are largely multiple use sites which depend on extensive case-by-case assessments. 

The UK has lots of MPAs but almost no marine reserves.

The UK has lots of MPAs but almost no marine reserves.

So, it looks like the UK is doing great, with this patchwork of marine protection. But the reality is a different story in terms of proper protection. That's not to say we haven't tried to put more marine reserves in place over the years though. In 2011, 65 "reference areas" were put forward in England by stakeholders according to scientific guidance by the Government, but were later withdrawn, while in Wales plans for 10 similar sites were scrapped after a large backlash by stakeholders who (reasonably) believed they penalised local sustainable sea users instead of protecting the areas extensively damaged by industrial fishing.

So in the end, we still have the few tiny sites to look at, including Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, which protects things like this lovely sea fan below. But has also been shown to produce so many larger lobsters that they spill out into areas outside the reserve where they can be sustainable fished by local fishers.

Lundy Island reserve protects wonders like this pink sea fan. But lobsters have also been shown to be much more numerous and larger in size inside the reserve, which provides benefits to local fishermen as they spill out into neighbouring areas. Photo: © naturepl.com / Linda Pitkin / WWF

Lundy Island reserve protects wonders like this pink sea fan. But lobsters have also been shown to be much more numerous and larger in size inside the reserve, which provides benefits to local fishermen as they spill out into neighbouring areas. Photo: © naturepl.com / Linda Pitkin / WWF

In the UK, the evidence show that where they exist, marine reserves are well-supported by local stakeholders, but the process to establish them is often a painful one. So that's why I'm using this WCMT fellowship to visit places with a wide network of reserves which have been in place for  a long time, and see how they work in practice, whether they are meeting their objectives, and if they have been accepted by stakeholders.

California is a good place to start, over  the coming 2 weeks I'll be trying to find out what's made these sites work (or not)....