Regulating the Sea: A Socio-Legal Analysis of English Marine Protected Areas (Law in Context), written by Margherita Pieraccini

In: The Italian Review of International and Comparative Law
Apostolos Tsiouvalas Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea ( nclos), UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway
The Arctic Institute – Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, Washington D.C., USA

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Margherita Pieraccini, Regulating the Sea: A Socio-Legal Analysis of English Marine Protected Areas (Law in Context). Cambridge University Press. 2022, £85.00 hardback, isbn 978-1108843119

Over the last few decades, area-based management tools have been the go-to conservation tool employed in the oceans, with over 18,000 marine protected areas (mpa s) currently existing around the world, covering over 8% of the total ocean space.1 The book Regulating the Sea: A Socio-Legal Analysis of English Marine Protected Areas, part of Cambridge’s Law in Context series, written by Margherita Pieraccini, constitutes the first ever comprehensive attempt to address such marine conservation mechanisms in the English legislative seascape through a socio-legal theoretical lens. Using the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act (mcaa) as a point of departure, the monograph explores different manifestations of the multilevel governance of mpa s in English marine conservation law.

The author’s approach comprises four main stages of analysis, reflected in the four parts of the book, each of which consists of 2 Chapters. Part i is theoretically influenced by works of political ecologists and legal geographers on marine conservation and the spatial imagination of territory in the sea. Chapter 1 employs the language of the commons and commoning to show that mpa s have complex and multiple roles and characterisations depending on the perspective and scale employed. After introducing how international law uses the commons’ language, the Chapter provides a twofold analysis of the concept of mpa s, first as a regulatory tool for achieving in-situ marine conservation within delineated areas and subsequently as state-controlled institutional sites that can both ensure and hinder common-pool access to marine resources. Chapter 2, in turn, applies this legal-spatial reading of mpa s to the multi-level legal architecture at play in English marine conservation law, highlighting the role of international law-making in shaping English environmental regulations. This Chapter provides a descriptive account of the different use of mpa s in English waters, observing the fragmented nature of the management regime, the slow-moving pace of designation of marine conservation zones (mcz s) and the lack of active management in many mpa s, comprising European Marine Sites.

After setting this book’s theoretical scene, Part ii of the monograph delves into the existing implementation tools that inform marine conservation law, providing a critical engagement with the logic behind the use of impact assessments (ia s) in the designation of mcz s and the risk-based approaches to regulate fisheries in mpa s, what the author frames as “rationalisation of regulation”. Chapter 3 critically explores the use of ia s in the designation of mcz s, by placing focus on the cost-benefit analysis widely employed in mcz planning. As the author observes, through the systematic and objective assessment of the costs and benefits of conservation intervention, ia s in mcz designation often elevate quantification logics over commoning practices and may lead to social injustices as they only serve a few among the numerous voices in the seascape. Chapter 4 sheds light on the regulation of fisheries in mpa s and discusses the risk-based and phased approach to inshore fishing in relation to both European Marine Sites and mcz s. The risk-based approach to fisheries demonstrates that disregarding existing shortcomings, bridging the precautionary principle in the regulation of fisheries with local fishers” interests has ensured commoning practices in a better way compared to the ia s’ foci presented in Chapter 3.

Part iii of the monograph illuminates the “democratisation of regulation” with respect to marine conservation law, denoting the various regulatory processes and institutions that contribute to the opening of decision-making to the public. Chapter 5 explores existing attempts at democratising conservation regulation through the process of designation of mcz s in English waters. Interlacing theoretical work with insights generated through empirical fieldwork with regional stakeholder working groups to assess the level of public representation in conservation intervention, the Chapter demonstrates that the case of mcz s designation in England reveals that certain institutional processes may at times “rigidify identities and create dichotomies”. Chapter 6 thus considers the issue of democratisation from an institutional perspective, focusing on two crucial actors in the institutional conservation landscape, environmental ngo s and Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authorities (ifca s). The role of ngo s is found to be significant in contributing to the commoning of mpa regulation, while the ifca s bring forth a more relational view of conservation and fisheries grounded on deliberative democracy.

The last theme explored in the book is the adaptability of the existing mpa framework in place, by examining how mpa s react in the context of ecological changes (climate change) but also legal and political disruptive forces (Brexit). Chapter 7 discusses the extent to which the existing legal framework promotes adaptative governance for biodiversity conservation in a changing climate and whether management practices follow suit. By borrowing theoretical lenses from more-than-human scholarship, this Chapter tackles issues of spatiality and border fixity in the context of an ever-shifting marine environment. Following this critical reading of the current efforts to conserve marine biodiversity in a changing climate, Chapter 8, which constitutes the last Chapter of the book, provides additional observations on the theme of adaptive regulation in the context of Brexit. The Chapter tests the adaptability of conservation law to regulatory changes brought about by Brexit and concludes that England’s policy following Brexit raises many critical questions regarding the potential for marine conservation commoning.

The book finishes with concluding remarks from the author, summarising the main insights distilled through her study and positioning that the positive or adverse conceptualization of mpa s as regulatory tools or institutional sites depends on whether they are seen in light of their ecological incentives or in the context of public participation and local community interests. While the latter perspectives have been extensively problematized through different theoretical lenses, as the author admits, mpa governance covers a much broader terrain than law and regulation, and this book is predominantly focused on formal law-making in English conservation mechanisms and their own perception. Further engagement, for instance, with bottom-up approaches and qualitative research in multiple loci and themes (e.g. customary law and marine tenure), could have further fleshed out the societal function of mpa s in England.

Yet, disregarding its primary focus on formal English legal architecture, the book will constitute a valuable reading for environmental lawyers, researchers, students, as well as practitioners generally interested in mpa s. As the book provides critical reflections on current legal and regulatory structures, it is of interest to sociolegal scholars, legal geographers, legal philosophers and political scientists, as well as to those interested in complementing desk research with empirical studies.

As Pieraccini thoroughly explores in her book, mpa s have been the major regulatory tool for enclosing delineated marine areas for the purpose of environmental conservation, often generating conflicts among different actors in the seascape. While the book exemplifies these frictions through the English case, the prominent and yet controversial value of mpa s as conservation tools and sites was emphatically asserted in the negotiations of the recently adopted bbnj Agreement, which came to inter alia institutionalize the systematic development of mpa s in areas beyond national jurisdiction.2 Navigating with the monograph Regulating the Sea: A Socio-Legal Analysis of English Marine Protected Areas may thus be a means not merely for gaining a critical understanding of the multifarious aspects of mpa s designation and management in England, but a conceptual lens of critically thinking about commoning and un-commoning the marine space elsewhere.


“Marine Protected Areas” (Protectedplanet, 2023) <> accessed online March 31, 2023.


unga, “International Legally Binding Instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction,” (24 December 2017) UN Doc a/res/72/249.

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