An independent review, published today and first commissioned on World Oceans Day (June 8) last year by the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, is calling for the introduction of Highly Protected Marine Areas in UK waters.
Currently, the UK has a range of protections in place within its network of 355 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), with a focus on a designated feature or habitat within their boundaries. However, the Highly Protected Marine Areas look to take a ‘whole site approach’ and only permitting certain activities within their boundaries such as vessel transit, scuba diving and kayaking. Activities that could have a damaging effect on habitats or wildlife, including fishing, construction and dredging would be banned.
These Highly Protected Marine Areas would enable a greater recovery of the marine ecosystem and enhance the Government’s commitment to a national ‘Blue Belt’, which has already seen an area of 92,000 square km protected – 40% of English seas. This review states that the introduction of such areas might lead to a significant biodiversity boost for our seas by giving our marine life the best chance to recover and thrive.
“Our ‘Blue Belt’ of Marine Protected Areas has already raised the bar for marine protection and we are committed to the highest standards of sustainability for our seas that set a gold standard around the world,” said Environment Secretary George Eustice. “That’s why we asked the panel to conduct this review and I am very grateful to them for their work. I welcome and agree with the spirit of ambition, which is in line with our 25 Year Environment Plan, and we will now carefully consider the recommendations set out in the review.”
The review, which was supported by a panel of independent experts and led by former Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, shares a number of key recommendations to be considered by the government. Aside from the introduction of Highly Protected Marine Areas, a ‘whole site approach’ to protect all species and habitats within the area’s boundaries should be taken. Additionally, potential sites should be identified on the basis of ecological principles. The selection of these sites should seek to minimise any negative effects on stakeholders. To do this, the government should agree the identification and regulation of these sites in partnership with sea users.
“The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how important our relationship with nature is,” said Lewis Pugh, endurance swimmer and UN Patron of the Ocean. “The beauty of nature is that it can bounce back – but only if we give it proper protection. There is little point in having protected areas that are not pulling their weight. The UK has some of the richest and most diverse sea life in the world. I’m excited that we may soon have a pilot programme of Highly Protected Marine Protected Areas in England, but this must amount to more than dipping a toe in the water. I urge the UK government to show the same leadership as with their call for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected. They must act urgently to strengthen protection, as in a few years’ time it will be too late to fix the crisis in our oceans.”
The review also includes information on the potential social and economic benefits of introducing Highly Protected Marine Areas. These benefits include a boost in tourism and recreational activities, broadened opportunities for scientific research and education, as well as myriad positive effects for human health. It also suggests that any potential fishing restriction could be counterbalanced by a stronger and biodiverse marine wildlife – with potential long-term benefits for the fishing industry from providing areas where sea life can develop and breed undisturbed.
“The panel’s work shows strong consensus from conservation, industry and fisheries perspectives: highly protected areas are essential in reviving the ocean,” said Richard Benwell, Chief Executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link. “We urge Ministers to now implement the recommendations quickly and create fully protected HPMAs for our seas. These will help recover our seas for people, nature and climate and be a vital addition to the UK network of marine sites. This would set Government at the cutting edge of ocean action and reinforce its leadership role in the Global Ocean Alliance as it calls to protect 30% of the world’s oceans.”
This review builds on the UK government’s commitment to further advance ocean protection measures. This includes last year’s designation of a further 41 Marine Protection Zones protecting species and habitats such as the stalked jellyfish, short-snouted seahorse and blue mussel beds. The Government is currently putting in place management measures for MPAs, including seeking new powers through the Fisheries Bill, and through implementation of the 25 Year Environment Plan.
Photographs by Dennis Kummer & Michael Hutton.
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