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New study provides vital insight for climate-smart marine planning in UK waters

29 April 2024

The most advanced and comprehensive analysis of climate change impacts on the UK’s marine environment, in support of effective marine conservation and economic growth, has been published.
Seal popping its head above the water

Led by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)/ Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Marine Spatial Planning Addressing Climate Effects (MSPACE) project in collaboration with the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP), the study identifies how marine conservation, fisheries and aquaculture sectors could be best supported across UK seas through climate-smart marine plans.

MSPACE has now published its 'early warning system', a state-of-the-art modelling analysis showing where, and for how long, marine conservation, fisheries and aquaculture could be best supported across UK seas.


What is climate-smart marine planning?

Marine planning is a public process to document, consult and set priorities about how we manage and share the marine space. Across the UK Nations, marine plans enshrine key policies that set out ambitions to deliver climate change adaptation and climate-smart marine planning is the mechanism to deliver these.

Climate change is already affecting species and habitats residing in UK seas and these effects are set to increase if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, accelerating climate change and its consequences further still. Climate change has major implications for the sustainable use of the UK marine environment and also represents a significant challenge to the delivery of marine policy that protects ecosystem health, biodiversity and the communities that depend on marine resources effectively.

Creating new, climate-adaptive management strategies for these ecosystems, and the various economic sectors reliant on them, is vital in order to harness opportunities for effective marine conservation and economic growth in the long-term. However, the study drew attention to key capability gaps that have hindered the ability of UK Nations to deliver these marine plans, such as:

  • the absence of a marine protected areas (MPA) network that effectively supports conservation species and habitats as their distributions respond to climate change.
  • a lack of inclusion of the effects of climate change on wild capture and aquaculture species regulatory policy.
  • a consideration deficit of climate change effects evidence during marine planning and licensing.

This study was co-developed to help address these capability gaps and accelerate the ability of UK marine policy makers and industries to make climate-smart decisions. It brings together unprecedented quantities of data for study by a team of internationally-recognised scientists and marine stakeholders from organisations across the UK, including Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Heriot Watt University, University of Essex, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the Marine Directorate, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and others.

Hotspots_refugia.pngThe study report will be useful to those with a role of managing marine spaces, and activities that affect these spaces, now and into the future. By capitalising on the UK’s world-class ocean climate modelling capability, the report team were able to deliver a climate change assessment for the entire UK Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that, for the first time, demonstrates the spatial variation in climate change sensitivity of the UK’s valuable marine ecosystems, identifying local opportunities to build climate resilient policy and industries. The assessment results are presented as series of maps, identifying various marine activities alongside climate change responses for two future scenarios (RCP4.5 & RCP8.5) up until the end of the 21st century.

The report also explores areas where policy mechanisms could be strengthened to deliver climate-smart management, as well as offering recommendations about how marine planning could be used to support the effective management of areas identified as ‘climate change refugia’ for three key sectors – marine conservation, fisheries and aquaculture. Identification of these areas highlights that they could be utilized by future climate-smart policy design, to promote the climate change adaptation of natural marine ecosystems in addition to offering opportunities for sectoral policy design by underlining where risk from climate change may be lower for our fishing and aquaculture sectors.

The key findings included in the report are:

  • Some marine uses within three target sectors (marine conservation, fisheries and aquaculture) will be broadly impacted by climate change in the immediate future (high confidence). This highlights an urgent need for climate-adaptive spatial management strategies for our marine environment.
  • Marine climate change refugia also identified for target sectors could be capitalised upon as part of climate-resilient spatial management strategies, which focus on sectoral activities in areas exhibiting natural, long-term resistance to broad climate change pressures.
  • Transboundary coordination of climate-smart approaches to planning is needed across UK nations to deliver on climate change adaptation for our marine ecosystems and related economic sectors.
  • Strong limits on greenhouse gas emissions at the global scale are likely to deliver the best outcomes for UK marine ecosystems and the maritime sectors explored in the report.
WATCH: MSPACE Marine Spatial Planning Addressing Climate Effects - Webinar 29 April 2024.

Prof. Ana Queirós, Senior Marine and Climate Change Ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) and Lead Investigator of MSPACE, said:

“We are extremely excited to share the findings of this study as it represents a huge step forward in supporting our marine policy and industry communities across the UK nations, and our marine sectors, towards climate-adaptive marine planning. This capability may help ensure our marine environment remains a healthy and productive ecosystem that supports the UK’s economy as well as the well-being of its people.”

“Beyond the report and data made freely available through the MCCIP website {LINK}. we are now using this evidence in work with our policy and industry communtiies across the foru UK nations, to make recommendations exploring the social and economic viability of actioning the climate-smart planning policy, and especially, the current design and review of marine plans. The resulting web-based and AI assisted decisions support system (ASPACE), combining climate modelling, social value assessment, and economic viability, and underpinning datasets, will be made freely available for use in the summer of 2025".

Prof. Matt Frost, Head of PML’s International Office and Chair of the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP), commented:

“MCCIP have been working on delivering the latest independent information and advice on climate impacts to the policy community for nearly two decades. We were delighted to work with MSPACE on this project as it provides clear evidence that can be used to inform decision making across sectors, across administrative areas and across multiple time-scales and scenarios. It really is an ‘early warning system’ in allowing decisions to be taken now to ensure the best outcomes for the marine environment for generations to come”.
James Green, Team Manager of Marine Planning at the Orkney Islands Council, stated:

“The MSPACE project has facilitated discussion between our stakeholders and has helped to raise awareness of marine climate change issues in Orkney. Currently, many of the future impacts of climate change on Orkney’s marine environment and marine economy are not very well understood. The findings from the Early-warning system: Climate-smart spatial management of UK fisheries, aquaculture and conservation report will help to build understanding and should inform our marine planning process. We very much look forward to continuing to work with the MSPACE team during the next phase of the project".
MSPACE is delivered as part of the Sustainable Management of Marine Resources programme, which is funded by UK Research & Innovation, a recipient of the UK Government’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

Related information

MCCIP report summary page


Full report: Early-warning system - Climate-smart spatial management of UK fisheries, aquaculture and conservation
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