Marine Protected Areas –no escape from litter

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 7 April 2020

Beaches that lie in or near the network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around the English coast have the same levels of rubbish caused by humans as beaches in unprotected areas.

Euro beach litter
© Bo Eide

The types of litter that were found are typical of those regularly picked up and recorded by our dedicated volunteers

Lauren Eyles,
MCS Beachwatch Manager

Those are the findings of a new study by MCS, the University of Exeter and Natural England which found “no difference” in the amount of this anthropogenic litter present inside and outside MPAs.

The study included 91 Marine Conservation Zones established from 2009 onwards, 256 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 89 Special Protection Areas (for birds). Plastic was the main form of litter found, and “public littering” the most common identifiable source. The research highlights how marine plastic pollution respects no boundaries.

The research, which used data from 25 years of beach clean information collected by MCS volunteers, found MPAs in the South East (Kent) and South West (Cornwall and Devon) had the highest levels of shore-based litter. Regional differences in the items found – such as fishing materials in the South West and debris from sewage around large rivers – demonstrate the need for “locally appropriate management”, the study concludes.

Lauren Eyles, MCS Beachwatch Manager, said: “The types of litter that were found are typical of those regularly picked up and recorded by our dedicated volunteers.

“What this study highlights is how long-term data from Beachwatch can provide vital evidence in helping to understand the problem, and that MPAs don’t necessarily protect important habitats and species; an even more powerful message to stop litter at source.”

Dr Sarah Nelms, of the University of Exeter, said the work has shown that MPAs, which often contain sensitive marine habitats and species, are exposed to litter much in the same way as non-protected sites: “MPAs have no physical boundaries so, to protect them from any potential impacts of litter, we need to take a whole-system approach and reduce the overall amount of litter being released into the environment.

“We also need a coordinated approach that considers local nuances, tackling sources of litter that cause specific problems in certain areas.”

Dr Hazel Selley, Marine Specialist from Natural England who commissioned the work, said: “A clean, healthy and biologically diverse marine environment is immensely valuable, for the economy in coastal communities, for our charismatic wildlife and – once we can travel again – for the mental well-being benefits of spending time by the sea.

“As we continue to research the impact of plastics on our marine life and move to eliminate avoidable plastic waste, it’s also clear is that we all have a role to play keeping our beaches and ocean clean.”

The study was funded by Natural England and ExeMPLaR, a multidisciplinary plastics research hub led by the University of Exeter. The paper is published in the Journal Environmental Pollution

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