Are the UK's marine protected areas fit for purpose?

Far from protecting our seas, many of the UK’s marine protected areas preside over worsening degradation and loss of sea life, Blue Marine Foundation chief scientific advisor Callum Roberts tells Karen Thomas 

THE UK LOOKS set to launch tougher new measures to protect its seas, at home and in its overseas territories, reflecting growing evidence that our marine-protected areas (MPAs) – far from improving our sea life – have had the opposite effect.

There are 355 MPAs around the British isles, that include a quarter of the UK’s seas, designated special conservation areas and marine-conservation zones (MCZs). The UK has 91 MCZs, the government having designated 41 new sites this summer.

However, fishing, dredging, extraction and other damaging activities are barred to support conservation from just 1 per cent of MPA-designated areas – that’s 7 sq km out of a total 750,000 sq km. Only 5 per cent of these areas are protected from trawling and dredging.

A study published last year revealed more intensive levels of trawling and dredging in supposedly protected areas of the UK’s unprotected coastal waters. Fishing was more intense inside than outside the protected areas, leading to a sharper drop in numbers of sharks and rays.

This “abject failure” to protect our seas reflects the way protected zones have been established and managed, explains Blue Marine Foundation chief scientific adviser and professor of marine biology Callum Roberts.

When local interest groups – fisheries, ports, shipping and leisure users – find their activities curtailed by environmental degradation and losses of marine life, they bow to pressure from conservationists to designate their area a marine-protected area. But the decision is a compromise and the objectives for these areas are to maintain species and habitats only “to favourable condition”, allowing activities that Defra decrees to be “sustainable” to continue.

Because those activities can include fishing and dredging, the degradation and losses get worse. With only a fraction of our seas wholly protected to allow them to regenerate, this has had devastating consequences for our marine life, Roberts says.

“Our politicians have taken the easier route and allowed these activities to continue, with the result that what we have in the British Isles’ coastal waters is a pointless network of paper parks.

“We protect just 1 per cent of Britain’s coastal waters from all fishing and dredging, entirely free for conservation and that just isn’t good enough. In our near coastal waters, MPAs have been an abject failure.”


In June, former environment secretary Michael Gove announced a review, led by Richard Benyon MP, to determine the case to designate highly protected marine areas (HPMA) in English and Northern Irish waters, supporting the 25-year environment plan’s pledge to create a Blue Belt around the British Isles and overseas territories.

HPMAs would introduce far tougher restrictions, preventing damaging human activities that include fishing, dredging and navigation. If the review finds in favour, five pilot HPMAs will be established to monitor and measure the effects.

Blue Marine Foundation says tougher restrictions have buy-in from both the Conservative and Labour parties. Political upheaval notwithstanding, the pilot projects could launch early in the new year.

Ironically, the UK has a much better record protecting the seas around its international territories, Roberts says. It has extended full protection from trawling and dredging around Pitcairn Island, the Chagos Islands and Ascension Island.

Now, it is setting up tough new restrictions around St Helena in the south Atlantic. These examples prove that the UK can “set a gold standard in marine protection” when it puts its mind to it, Roberts says.

Pockets of good practice already exist around the British Isles, however – in the Isle of Man and in the UK.

In Scotland, an island community set up the Arran Seabed Trust to promote sustainable fishing such as sea angling, hand diving and creeling, having banned bottom trawling and dredging. At Lyme Bay in the west country, Blue Marine has worked with the fishing community to support sustainable practices with quality assurance, to sell “reserve seafood” at a premium.

And Plymouth City Council announced in September that it plans to launch the UK’s first national marine park. Plymouth Sound National Marine Park brings together the public and private sectors and NGOs. Plymouth Sound supports more than 1,000 species of fish and marine animals, as well as the largest naval base in western Europe. Users include fishing fleet, shipping, diver training and tourists.

“All of these kinds of initiatives are trying to fill the vacuum that the paper parks have created,” Roberts says. “Even so, we need to ramp up the level of protection that we are giving to our seas.”


Saving our sealife means halting destructive practices, alongside restoration work. The Environment Agency is looking at measures to restore lost oyster beds, seagrass meadows and saltmarsh that improve coastal protection on top of improving marine habitats.

As for the prospects, Roberts is optimistic. The government has pledged to protect 30 percent of UK waters by 2030, and any new government will probably uphold that commitment, he says.

Even Brexit may have an upside for UK marine conservation. “Whatever you think of it politically, Brexit may not be bad at all for our marine conservation,” Roberts says. “We will no longer have to consult the European Commission, giving us more control over what happens in our waters, despite the historic fishing and access rights that now exist.

“We need to respect those rights and perhaps buy back some fishing quotas… But this is as an opportunity for the UK to take more account of conservation science, to speak with an independent voice at international bodies such as the United Nations. But we will also need political vision, commitment and consistent leadership to extend greater protection to our oceans.”

It is not too late to act, he concludes: halting destructive practices will have an almost immediate impact on sealife, giving time and space for fish and plant species to regenerate. “There’s growing awareness now that our coast is not marginal – that it is our front line, offering flood protection and improving our water quality, as well as habitats.

“Environmental economics has established that the costs of losing this outweigh the value of restoring it. We are on the cusp of a major shift that recognises how important these habitats are to us – not least in the battle against climate change.”

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