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A variety of pressures, including fishing and physical structures such as oil rigs, are impacting marine wildlife and habitats globally.  Creating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can help combat the adverse consequences.

The UK Government supports international ambitions to see 30% of the world’s oceans protected by 2030. It has set up the Blue Belt programme which aims to provide long term protection across more than four million km2 of marine environment within UK Overseas Territories waters.

The UK has several types of MPA. In combination, these are intended to form an ecologically coherent and well-managed network supporting effective conservation and sustainable use of the marine environment:

The UK as a whole has 374 MPAs, covering 38% of UK waters. They cover 47% of inshore (up to 12 nautical miles) and 36% of offshore waters.

Marine conservation is a devolved matter. This briefing focuses on MPAs in England, where 197 MPAs cover 51% of inshore and 37% of offshore waters.

The MPA network off Scotland covers approximately 37% of its waters; Wales’s 139 MPAs cover 9% of inshore waters; and Northern Ireland’s 48 MPAs cover 38% of the inshore region.

Government approaches

The Government’s approach to marine conservation is set out in the 2019 Marine Strategy, a three-stage framework for achieving good environmental status (GES) in UK seas.

More broadly, the 25-year Environment Plan, published in January 2018, set out how the Government plans to “secure clean, healthy, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans”. Defra’s 2021/22 review of progress stated that a comprehensive network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) had been built and that it was now focusing on making sure they were “properly protected”.

A key element of the MPA network is the network of 91 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in waters around England (see the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, NCC’s interactive map). MCZs are national MPAs, designated and protected through the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which protect nationally significant features including wildlife, habitat, geology and geomorphology. Whilst activities such as fishing should be appropriately managed in an MCZ, designation does not necessarily mean such activities need to change, although part of the designation requirements is that activities are assessed. Stakeholders are consulted on any new approaches, such as byelaws on the use of bottom trawling fishing gear, introduced by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to ensure conservation objectives are met in specific sites.

The MMO is using powers under the Fisheries Act 2020 to introduce fisheries management to protect 41 offshore MPAs by the end of 2024, alongside measures to protect 10 additional MPAs sited between 6 and 12 nautical miles from the English coast. Its consultation on putting in place measures in 13 sites on to mitigate the impacts of bottom towed fishing gear ended in March 2023 and responses are being considered.

Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs)

In 2019, the Government-commissioned Benyon review recommended introducing a new type of protected area, Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs). The Government accepted this recommendation and said that it would designate the first three pilot HPMAs in English waters before 6 July 2023, under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. This decision followed a consultation on five HPMA candidate sites.

The proposed HPMA three sites are: North East of Farnes Deep, a modified version of Allonby Bay, and a modified version of Dolphin Head (see Maps of the 3 Highly Protected Marine Areas)

Two further sites consulted on, Lindisfarne and Inner Silver Pit South, will not be designated in the pilot. The Government said that the initial pilot phase of HPMAs will inform the future of HPMA policy.

The Government has said that, in line with advice from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), management measures will be needed to further the conservation objective of HPMAs. It anticipates that within each site “extractive, destructive and depositional activities” will be prohibited, including commercial and recreational fishing, dredging, construction and anchoring. Non-damaging levels of other activities to the extent permitted by international law are to be allowed.

Some stakeholders opposed the proposals. The summary of the responses to the 2022 consultation on HPMAs reported that, overall, 56% supported the designation of pilot HPMAs in English waters and 36% were opposed. The summary said that supporters agreed HPMAs were “needed to address the climate crisis, biodiversity decline and declining environmental status. The most common reason for opposing HPMAs was the direct (30%) and indirect (22%) impact on livelihoods.”

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