Marine Protected Areas

New Highly Protected Marine Areas to be designated in English waters

The British government recently announced that three Highly Protected Marine Areas will be designated by July 2023. Conservationist groups welcome the move but argue that the areas need to stretch further.

08/03/2023
Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Thomas Horig & Ellen Cuylaerts

On 28 February, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that marine habitats and wildlife are set to receive the highest levels of protection as the government will designate the first three Highly Protected Marine Areas in English waters.

Delivering on the commitments set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan, Highly Protected Marine Areas will enable nature to fully recover by removing all harmful activities including fishing, construction and dredging, increasing marine biodiversity and supporting climate-resilient ecosystems to thrive.

From safeguarding ‘blue carbon’ habitats to help tackle climate change; protecting the feeding and nursery grounds of commercially important fish species such as cod and herring; through to reversing the impacts of human activity on degraded marine ecosystems, the first three Highly Protected Marine Areas were chosen due to the ecological importance of nature recovery in the sites.

The three sites being taken forward will be designated before 6 July 2023 and are Allonby Bay (Irish Sea), Dolphin Head (Eastern Channel) and North East of Farnes Deep (Northern North Sea).

“Our comprehensive environment plan sets us on a path to deliver an improved marine environment and halt the decline in biodiversity which benefits us all,” commented Thérèse Coffey, environment secretary. “Highly Protected Marine Areas are a vital step forward in enabling our ecosystems to thrive, increasing climate resilience and ensuring we have a healthy and productive marine environment for generations to come,” she added.

The first three Highly Protected Marine Areas include inshore and offshore sites and will complement the existing network of Marine Protected Areas covering 40% of English waters. Their introduction follows recommendations in the Benyon Review to help achieve clean, healthy, safe, productive, and biologically diverse ocean and seas, and drives forward the Government’s commitment to protect at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.

Allonby Bay contains ‘blue carbon’ habitats that capture and store carbon. The site also contains honeycomb reefs and blue mussel beds which can provide water purification and important protection from coastal erosion. Nursery and spawning habitats for a range of commercial species including cod, plaice, sole and herring will also be protected.

Dolphin Head has been degraded following impacts of human activity so the Highly Protected Marine Area presents an opportunity to fully recover habitats and species. It will help protect the feeding and nursery grounds of many important commercial fish species such as cod, herring, plaice as well as ecologically important habitats such as ross worm reefs.

North East of Farnes Deep has high levels of biodiversity. The large areas of muddy habitats are important for the storage of carbon as well as for a range of species including birds, marine mammals and fish. This includes spawning and nursery habitats for up to ten commercially important species such as angler fish, surmullet, whiting and haddock.

Tony Juniper, Natural England chair, said: “The long term sustainability of our ocean and its ability to provide the essential ecosystem services that will help us meet the challenge of climate change, protect food security and sustain the coastal and marine economy is in part dependent on having the right protections in place. The designation of the first three Highly Protected Marine Areas moves us towards this goal. I welcome this as a first step towards greater protection of our marine wildlife. I also look forward to working with government to identify additional areas where important marine habitats and species can benefit from the highest levels of protection.”

The Marine Conservation Society welcomes the announcement of the establishment of Highly Protected Marine Areas in English waters. Protecting these sites will enable nature to fully recover by removing all harmful activities including fishing, construction and dredging, creating a haven for marine life. However, these sites represent less than 0.5% of English seas, the Marine Conservation Society argues, and the latest announcement needs to go further in responding to the climate and nature crises.

At this stage, two sites – Lindisfarne and Inner Silver Pit South – will not be taken forward to designation. Additional sites will now be explored and any future options will also be subject to consultation. The proposed sites at Lindisfarne and Inner Silver Pit South have not been designated, with Defra citing ‘socio-economic impacts’ as the reason.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist, Marine Protected Areas at the Marine Conservation Society said: “Our marine habitats must be given the opportunity to recover and provide the maximum benefits to us – including biodiversity restoration, carbon storage and supporting fisheries recovery. The UK Government cannot continue to under achieve and must show much greater ambition and initiative to build a network of HPMAs – or No Take Zones – covering at least 10% of English seas by 2030 to allow our seas to thrive.”

“In addition, the full range of benefits that we could get from our marine environment need to be properly valued – including biodiversity, carbon storage, food, energy and flood defence. The Office for National Statistics has estimated that the UK’s marine natural capital assets are worth £211bn. To maximise the incredible benefits that we can get from our seas, they must be protected to recover and flourish,” writes the Marine Conservation Society in a statement.

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Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Thomas Horig & Ellen Cuylaerts

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