Thursday, 28 January 2016

Our new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs)

Earlier this month, the Second Tranche of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) was announced and it included two in the Selsey area -  Utopia and Offshore Overfalls. There are copious amounts of documentation available at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) including  Fact Sheets and Maps for each MCZ. 

Utopia is a small MCZ located 20km East of the Isle of Wight; it is just East of the Nab Tower and surrounded by Dredging areas with the Nab Tower Spoil Ground to the South. Unfortunately there are errors with at least one of the positions given in the Designation Map  however it looks like there are several wrecks in the MCZ although none are on our diving list at present. This is an MCZ that have been designated mainly to protect the geology rather than the marine fauna and flora; the Utopia reef consists of an area of bedrock and large boulders that host rich communities of sponges and anthozoans. Anthozoans are a group of soft animals with feathery tentacles, which includes soft corals, sea-fans, cup corals and anemones. The reef is surrounded by sediment made up mostly of gravel and sand. The animals that live in Utopia MCZ are mainly large, slow growing species such as branching sponges which has hard, crinkly ‘petals’ that provide hiding places for small fish, crabs and prawns. There is a 2014 Seasearch report on a dive executed to support the designation proposal and the original Balanced Seas report has more detail.

OffShore Overfalls is a much bigger MCZ located roughly 18km east of the southern part of the Isle of Wight. The site covers an area of 594 km2. The Basil wreck lies just inside the NW boundary whilst UB1195 is just outside the Western edge. 

This site protects areas of sandy seabed, which support species of flat fish and sand eels camouflaged on the surface of the sand, with worms and bivalves (with their pair, hinged shells) living within it.
The MCZ also includes the second largest area of seabed mixed sediments in the region. As mixed sediments are so varied, they can support a wide range of animals, both on and in the sediment. Animals found here include worms, bivalves, starfish and urchins, anemones, sea firs and sea mats.
In the north west corner of the site is an area called the ‘Overfalls’ which has been highlighted as an area of high scientific value due to the unusual area of mixed sediments, sands and gravels that form sandwaves. These are important for a range of fish species such as bass, turbot and brill, cod, rays (specifically blonde rays), tope, brown crab and sandeels.
The site also protects the geological English Channel Outburst feature which was formed at the end of the last glaciation by the collapse of either ice sheets or glaciers. 

We're quite likely to dive the Northern perimeter of this MCZ either specifically for the wrecks or possibly to view the Overfalls which are considered unique in the UK.

At present, no management approaches / plans have been defined for these MCZs and hence the only assumption that can be made is that it will be 'business as usual' for now. One consequence of this lack of forward thinking is that it is not clear how measurement / assessment will take place (who, what, when) and in some cases, what is the initial baseline. (Concerns about the level and quality of evidence have been a perpetual theme to the extent that the whole programme was delayed prior to the initial designations to address this area). We have encountered instances in the past where divers have been identified as causing damage to geological features (without specific proof) without the full force of an Ebb tide or a Storm being considered.

It is noticeable, reading some of the supporting documentation, that Diving is rarely mentioned as a sport using these areas - this is probably a reflection of the fact that both Angling / Recreational Fishing and Yachting have well organised focal groups that represent their activities in these forums over a long term and consistent basis - whilst BSAC is the National Governing Body it clearly does not have the same funding or capability of the other Stakeholders around the table. (In the case of Balanced Seas in particular we encountered severe difficulty in trying to provide input). 

The last Tranche of MCZs will be announced in 2018 after formal consultation in 2017; it is possible that Selsey Bill and the Hounds will be included - it was on the original recommendation list from the Balanced Seas project. We will publicise the Consultation when Defra announce it.