While compensatory actions for the impact of terrestrial developments is already an established concept, with the Environment Bill primed to legislate for a compulsory 10% biodiversity net gain on new developments, there is not currently an equivalent for the marine landscape.
The consultation is designed to “bring parity” to developments on land and sea, according to the government, though it states in its consultation draft that principles that are accepted for on land compensatory measures, like habitat recreation, may not be possible for most MPAs “because the techniques do not yet exist or because of the inability to purchase additional land for habitat creation”.
Potential measures the government is considering include actions to increase seabird populations.
For example, if seabirds are lost to ‘birdstrike’ as a result of a development, populations could be restored by controlling predators at nesting sites.
The guidance also introduces a “preference hierarchy” which considers compensatory measures on a spectrum from ‘like for like’ measures to population and regional-based actions that focus on wider environmental benefits.
It states that compensatory measures which benefit the same habitat or environmental feature impacted by development will always be preferable to another one off-site.
The consultation, set to run for 10 weeks, is seeking views on different approaches to implementing the guidance around compensation as well as how a marine net gain requirement could work.
On the launch of the consultation Rebecca Pow, environment minister, said: “Our network of MPAs now cover 38% of the UK’s seas and we want to ensure that a consistent level of protection is afforded to the unique habitats, species and features in these protected sites.
“Negative impacts on the MPA network through development should always be avoided”, said the minister, “but if this is not possible, it’s important that effective compensation is implemented ahead of development to ensure that nature has space to recover and thrive”.
In the consultation document, the government says that uncertainty about how compensatory measures should be developed is one of the barriers causing delays in the consenting process for offshore wind developments, hindering Boris Johnson’s ambition for the UK to be the “Saudi Arabia of wind power” and secure 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030.
The UK’s MPA network is one of the government’s primary tools for protecting the marine environment, including seabed habitats and species.
36% of all UK waters have been designated in some form of MPA due to the presence of a vulnerable species and/or habitat.
However, according to the Marine Conservation Society, only a small proportion of the seabed is offered legal protection from bottom trawling - a method of fishing where heavily weighted nets are dragged across the seabed to sweep up fish and shellfish - and dredging. Earlier this year, it said in a report that in English seas, MPA coverage equates to 40% of all waters, but only 2% of the English seabed is actually offered legal protection.
The Marine unProtected Areas report found that bottom trawling took place in all but one of the UK’s offshore MPAs between 2015 and 2018.