Summary of Current Legislation Relevant to Nature Conservation in the Marine Environment in the United Kingdom
Report to JNCC
Boyes, S., Warren, L. & Elliott, M.
Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, University of Hull
© Defra 2003


The marine environment and its areas of influence both inland and at sea are subject to a large number of human activities.  These include fisheries and other biological resource exploitation, recreation and tourism, waste disposal and mineral extraction, energy generation and navigation.  In addition, the coastal resource as space for development is protected and increased through coastal defences, hard and soft engineering and land claim.  Despite each of these activities, the natural resource has to be protected in terms of biodiversity and health, its integrity and the sustainability of the ecosystem and its components.  Within the context of this report, the term 'marine environment' covers all of the intertidal and subtidal areas within the estuarine, inshore, coastal and marine zones whereas the 'coastal zone' has an extent which differs according to the statute under consideration (Read et al., 2000).
In order to minimise the adverse effects of those activities but to allow them to be carried out without conflict and for economic benefits, each state requires its own statutory controls and administrative structures while acknowledging that many of the activities and effects may be transboundary.  The latter dictates that many states need to create a system of regional and national controls while at the same time adopting and ratifying supra-national and international protocols and conventions.  These aspects can be summarised in 6 tenets required for the effective and sustainable use of the marine environment:  actions inherent in managing the marine system should be environmentally sustainable, economically viable, technologically feasible, socially desirable, legislatively permissible and administratively achievable (Elliott, 2002).  The latter two have to be operated at national, supra-national and international levels.
Marine legislation in the UK has been in operation for over a century but it has developed in a sectoral way and has resulted in regional, national, European and international actions.  These have developed control over individual activities and uses and users of the coast but, as is described in the present report, there are few pieces of integrated legislation.  There is currently a wide range and complex system of national, regional, European and international legislative controls impacting on and controlling the UK marine environment, which aim to regulate and harmonise development impacts whilst protecting nature conservation interests.  With the High Court ruling in 1999, marine conservation designations (in the form of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protected Areas (SPAs)) will now have to extend out to the UK continental shelf and its water column.  This has implications for UK nature conservation legislation and extends the protection afforded to sensitive marine areas beyond the twelve nautical mile limit of the UK territorial waters to the 200 nautical mile limit of the UK Continental Shelf. Also significant for UK nature conservation was the decision to apply EIA and SEA to offshore activities (oil/gas and renewables so far, gravel for EIA already, SEA shortly).  These decisions are as yet unique in Europe.
In addition to the UK national legislation and the Directives provided by membership of the European Union, the UK marine environmental legislation reflects agreements through the state being a signatory to international conventions and agreements - for example the 1992 Oslo and Paris Convention, the 1979 Berne Convention and the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development as well as the North Sea Ministerial Conferences (1984, 1987, 1990 & 1995 & 2002), with Intermediate Ministerial Conferences held in 1993 on diffuse pollution and in 1997 on fisheries and the environment.  As is reflected by the dates of the above, there has been a large increase in marine environmental protection legislation and agreements during the past 3 decades.  In addition, there has been a change in philosophies during the past decade in the move from the sectoral to the holistic approach, an ecosystem approach and whereby additional emphasis has been placed on maintaining the integrity and sustainability of marine areas. 
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Please cite as: Boyes, S., Warren, L. & Elliott, M., (2003), Summary of Current Legislation Relevant to Nature Conservation in the Marine Environment in the United Kingdom, Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, University of Hull