A Precautionary MPA Tale

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Dale Rodmell argues that dismissing an evidence-based approach to Marine Protected Area planning in favour of precaution is misguided.

Shortly before Parliament was dissolved for the election, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) reported on its latest inquiry into Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Amongst its findings, the EAC concluded that insofar as the MPA network in English waters was concerned:

“The Government should not make perfection the enemy of the good by using a lack of ‘perfect data’ as an excuse to delay the designation of sites. The Government must adopt a precautionary principle approach to Tranche 3 site selection and designations should be made using ‘best available’ data” (i).

A range of organisations including RSPB, the Marine Conservation Society and the Marine Biological Association claimed that the standard of evidence the government required as part of the process was too high and that the goal posts had shifted. This referred to the best available evidence principle stated by the Government at the start of the Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) planning process in 2010, an elaboration of the precautionary principle that “lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for postponing proportionate decisions on site selection”(ii). RSPB stated that the current Government was “requiring full scientific certainty for designation of sites, despite little or no investment in the gathering of further evidence to support the designation of the sites identified within the initial MCZ process”.

In drawing its conclusion, the EAC was apparently convinced by these arguments. The government has yet to respond to the report.

Consequences and Contradictions

The EAC is not the first to hold the government’s feet to the coals over applying the precautionary principle, and the recomendation follows in the vein of its previous MPA inquiry in 2014. As a means of avoiding irreparable environmental damage, the preacuationary principle has a sound footing in environmental policy. But good public policy ideas can cause harm if badly applied as simplistic policy fixes that overrule all else. This is the case with the EAC’s recommendation, which is based on shallow political advocacy that fails to get to grips with the concrete issues associated with handling evidence and decision-making over environmental protection and the management of human activities, and glosses over the fact that evidence is critical in striking the right balance.

A dogmatic pursuit of the precautionary principle also exposes an incoherence among the EAC’s report’s other recommendations and fails to acknowledge what an evidence based process has already delivered for the MCZ planning process.

Contrary to the RSPB claims, since the initial selection of recommended English MCZs in 2011, marine survey campaigns have generated new data that has altered the classification of habitats found in many of the recommended sites. This in turn has led to identifying gaps in the network and subsequently to the identification of new recommended sites by Natural England and JNCC. As the EAC also recommends that the network is completed in full, if government is to refrain from gathering additional evidence it is clear that the network would not meet its set targets to cover representative habitat types.

The EAC’s recommendation that the government reinstate reference areas, which would ban the majority of activities and would become fisheries no take zones, also reveals muddled thinking. These were initially put forward in 2011 by regional stakeholder projects, but were defined in too much of a hurry to be considered sensible proposals. The intention of such sites is that they function as a barometer for the health of the wider network of MPAs. But if government steps away from an evidence based approach, as the EAC advocates, and we do not do not know with any level of confidence what the actual habitats are in such locations, then quite simply they cannot provide that function and our ability to understand whether MCZs are doing anything useful will be compromised.

Wagging the Evidence Dog

Aside from knowing what is actually being protected by MCZs, too often a precautionary approach is called for simply when there is a limited evidence base, irrespective of the level of risk that is implied by human activity (i.e. likelihood that harm can be caused).

But the question of risk is key because despite evidence limitations, the level of risk implied by human activities can be assessed scientifically. In a high-risk setting, the proper application of precaution would be to take action, but in a low risk setting there is less reason to do so.

If, however, we encourage a low standard of evidence by telling government to back off and accuse it of setting unattainable standards, determining whether an activity is low or high risk is more likely to be poorly informed.

This is what the EAC recommendation implies. The report fails to acknowledge that the evidence gathered during the selection and designation phase of planning MPAs is actually also crucial to the management phase. Although it actually refers to “perfection” and “perfect data” in reality this is facetious; the effect of the recommendation on the government’s present approach (which is not one to have perfection and cannot be a realistic expectation anyway) would likely be to downgrade the application of evidence-based policy at all stages of the planning process, not just the designation phase.

In arguing against delaying designations, the report highlights that the Government has deviated from the original stated principle on “best available evidence” in 2010, but this neglects that the Government at that time also recognised that the best available evidence principle was also about “high quality evidence (that) inspires confidence in the decisions that flow from it, and reassures people of the even-handedness of the outcome”(iii). In this the Government outlined the conundrum that it has subsequently found itself in in progressing the MCZ network, which has contributed to delaying its completion, although the original timeframe to designate sites in a two and half year period was always fantasy.

The Other Side of the Precautionary Coin

It is worth looking at what the alternative to an evidence based approach to MPAs is. I’ve already indicated the contradictions of the EAC’s own recommendations over meeting the network criteria and over including reference areas. More important from our perspective, however, is that rolling back on evidence has important ramifications for those who make a living in the areas where MPAs have been identified. If you believe, as we do, that they deserve to be subject to appropriate due process, which requires the proportionate application of evidence based management decisions, then the EAC recommendation is misguided, as it suggests that livelihoods are not worth the due consideration that they should be. If public policy assumes everything is high risk, this will inevitably lead to decisions that disproportionately impact on those who they affect and economic activity will be heavily curtailed.

Appropriate Use of Evidence

Rather than dismissing the central importance of evidence for measured policy decisions, a more useful approach would focus on how evidence should be applied. Evidence primarily should be geared towards informing risk-based management. This does not require massive investment to meet the unattainable level of evidence that the EAC erroneously suggests that the Government is pursuing. It does not require comprehensive survey and monitoring of the state of marine habitats in all MPAs. Resources should be targeted to where they are most needed.

In designated MPAs, where significant levels of human activity could be severely impacted by management measures, or where there are low levels of human activity but a high level of uncertainty over risk, the evidence bar on whether those activities are compatible with the conservation status should be higher and resources directed accordingly.

On the other hand, in an MPA where very little human activity occurs, the level of certainty needed is less important.

Risk assessments will then make use of the available information in a systematic way, aiming to be more detailed where uncertainty and potential impacts are greatest and applying precaution where relevant. Applied to fisheries in MPAs, the methodologies are still relatively novel and evolving, something which we have contributed to with our own work. But the approach more broadly follows in the footsteps of good practice applied under Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedures that have formed part of permitting arrangements for a long time. In this system, mitigation is applied where appropriate and monitoring may be used as a means to strengthen the validity of assessed impact likelihoods and the reliability of assessments. As a consequence of this, management and permitting decisions may be adapted as further knowledge and confidence increases.

This has to be a more progressive and fairer approach to MPA planning and management than one that devalues evidence and implicitly asserts that people don’t matter.

(i) Marine Protected Areas Revisted report (para 18)

(ii) Guidance note on Selection and Designation of Marine Conservation Zones (Note 1) (p8)

(iii) The Government’s strategy for contributing to the delivery of a UK network of marine protected areas (para 44)