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The Government must deliver new Highly Protected Marine Areas in the 'Marine Super Year'

In the fourth of a series of blogs launching the Wildlife and Countryside Link 2021 Marine Scorecard for Defra, Link's Marine Policy Officer Matthew Dawson explains why the Government must deliver on the recommendations of a major review into marine protections and begin pilots of new 'Highly Protected Marine Areas'

There are 371 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK, covering 38% of UK waters over an area of almost 340,000 km. However, these impressive headline figures mask severe problems at sea: “the environment is not in a healthy state”, “fishing, including the use of bottom-towed gears, pots, nets and angling, continues in many (MPA) sites” and “MPAs do not allow ecosystems to fully recover or deliver the full range of ecosystem services”.

These are not campaign quotes from environmental activists, they are the findings of the Government commissioned Benyon Review, which reported back last year. The review, led by former Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, found that our seas need stronger protections from human activities and recommended the piloting of new ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’, saying:

“The proposed HPMAs would go further than existing MPAs, which safeguard specific features or habitats within their boundaries, by taking a ‘whole site approach’ and by only permitting light disturbances within them, such as vessel transit, kayaking and scuba diving”.

HPMAs would provide the clearest evidence of how our marine environment could look if all human pressures were removed. Undisturbed marine areas would allow ecological processes to re-establish themselves, providing a benchmark against which to assess progress across our seas.

The Benyon Review also promotes the widespread benefits of enhanced marine protection, noting that “over time, benefits such as spillover and boundary effects can accrue to small scale local fishers”. This is due to protected marine animals growing larger and more mature, and hence having greater numbers of offspring.

It is a point echoed by Professor Callum Roberts, himself a panel member for the Benyon Review, who explains elsewhere that “in 1889, more than twice as many bottom fish (cod, haddock, plaice, and the like) were caught in British waters compared to today” despite “a fleet that in the 1880s consisted mostly of sail-powered boats open to the elements''. He notes that overexploitation of stocks means “today’s fleet has to work seventeen times harder for the same catch as fishermen in the 1880s”.

In the Wildlife and Countryside Link Marine Scorecard, published this week, environmental charities are calling on the government to begin delivery of HPMAs by no later than World Oceans Day in June. Our message is a simple one: with so much to gain for science, nature and coastal communities, let’s get on with it.

We are hopeful that the Government can begin consultation on the designation of pilot HPMAs in English and Secretary of State waters (the English inshore and offshore and Northern Ireland offshore zones) by World Oceans Day and announce designation by year end. HPMA pilot sites should be identified that cover a range of habitats including Blue Carbon ecosystems (where there is a high potential for carbon sequestration), inshore and offshore waters areas and English coastal regions.

Action on HPMAs this year should be coupled with other measures outlined in the Marine Scorecard, particularly better protections of the existing MPA network and more effective monitoring of fishing activities with Remote Electronic Monitoring. HPMAs must operate alongside the existing network of MPAs, enhancing the network and moving us closer towards ocean recovery.

With the UK’s seas failing to meet 11 out of 15 indicators of good health in 2019, it’s right that the Benyon Review called on the Government to act boldly with HPMAs. We hope that 2021 will see meaningful action to deliver this important new approach to ocean protection.

Matthew Dawson is a Policy Officer at Link, he manages and supports Link's Marine, Marine Mammals, and Resources and Waste Groups

To read the Marine Scorecard report click here. The scorecard is supported by Buglife, Greenpeace, the Institute of Fisheries Management, the Marine Conservation Society, ORCA, RSPB, RSPCA, Surfers Against Sewage, WDC, The Wildlife Trusts, WWT, and WWF

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.