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The route to success for new Highly Protected Marine Areas

Responding to the announcement that the Government will pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas, Gareth Cunningham, Co-Chair of the Link Marine Group, explains why this is an important development for marine policy and how they can be successfully delivered to best protect the marine environment

On paper 38% of UK seas are protected. But many of these Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are still lacking the necessary management measures or were only designated to protect individual features; be that a specific species, such as pink sea fan, seahorses or ocean quahogs, or habitats including rocky reef, deep water canyons and subtidal sandbanks.

Despite UK Government commitments to delivering a well managed and ecologically coherent network of MPAs, management to date has focussed on preventing threats to these defined features, for example fishing damage to cold-water coral reefs. Until now, no protected sites have focussed on creating true marine sanctuaries, free from all damaging activities. Following Defra’s announcement on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) this World Ocean Day, that is about to change.

HPMAs were first recommended by a Government commissioned review led by the former Fisheries Minister (and now Government Minister) Lord Richard Benyon. The Benyon Review made the striking recommendation that, to restore our seas, certain areas need to see all human pressures removed, effectively creating marine sanctuaries for all species and habitats within the boundary.

A year on from publication, the Government has this week responded to the Review, accepting most of its recommendations and making the encouraging commitment that this important new level of protection will be piloted in English waters, with designation to take place by the end of 2022.

Time is of the essence, and while the COVID-19 pandemic has led to understandable delays, this an ambitious delivery timescale to address the serious need to recover our seas. The twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change necessitate action which delivers as a matter of urgency. So, as this policy develops, there are several key factors which we want to set out to determine its route to success:

Monitoring nature’s recovery

One of the main purposes of HPMAs will be to determine what our seas look like if nature is allowed to flourish without the pressure of human activities. To fully appreciate the changes that we’re likely to see, the Government must ensure that pilot sites have regular and robust scientific and ecological monitoring, a principle that should also be applied to the whole Marine Protected Area network.

Determining baseline data in both future HPMAs and the existing MPAs to be used as comparison sites, will help determine the success of the pilots. In time this will set the bar against which the rest of the network can be measured, allowing the effectiveness of ongoing management measures to be determined. Some parts of our coasts and seas are in a state of long-term decline, so careful thought is needed to determine what recovery will look like for these sites.

Funding and engagement

Success for these pilot sites will hinge upon a number of factors. But crucial to their success is participation and buy-in from coastal communities, supported by appropriate funding for their management.

The current MPA network sees restricted funding, capacity and logistical issues hampering monitoring and management. In their response to the Benyon Review, Defra promised to “seek funding (for delivering HPMAs) as part of our wider delivery of marine conservation and management”. This must be fulfilled to ensure that agencies are empowered to deliver this policy to its full potential, so we can fully realise its benefits to the marine environment.

The Government response also gave “careful consideration” to the ability of an activity or sector to adapt to the location of a HPMA. However, we believe that the Government should consider the need to pay for ceasing some activities in our seas where the activity is incompatible with conservation objectives - we need to reduce pressures, not just displace them somewhere else.

Furthermore, whilst the Government response also agrees that HPMAs should be used to raise public awareness and engagement of the marine environment, for them to also achieve social and economic benefits it’s important to ensure the full engagement and participation of coastal communities in the designation process.

Enforcement

More resources, or investments in new technology, will also be needed to enforce the rules in HPMAs. Ideally this would involve Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM), where fishing vessels are fitted with CCTV and other sensors to ensure compliance with any regulations, as well as tracking of boats with automatic identification systems (AIS). It is disappointing that there is no commitment to REM in the recent HPMA announcement. Whatever approach is taken to enforcement, it cannot be left to NGOs or voluntary organisations; the Government must take responsibility for protecting these new HPMAs from activities which put marine ecosystems at threat.

Outlining next steps

We also want to see more detail and commitment, on the bigger picture for HPMAs. What steps will Ministers take if, as we expect, the HPMA pilot sites show beneficial outcomes, including greatly improved biodiversity?

HPMAs should be an important tool in the Government’s strategy to protect and recover 30% of seas by 2030. Ministers should now publish a detailed roadmap for achieving 30% of our waters being fully or highly protected by 2030.

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Overall, it’s hugely welcome that Ministers have responded positively to the Benyon Review and the Link Marine Group will look to support the Government on delivering HPMAs. They are one of the central priorities in our Marine Super Year Scorecard report, so this is a step in the right direction for making 2021 a marine ‘super year’. While there is more to be done to recover our seas, we look forward to further commitments in the run up to COP26 and beyond.

With the right approach to monitoring, sufficient funding, and an ambitious timeline for delivery, HPMAs can play an important role in protecting and restoring our precious blue planet.

Gareth Cunningham is the Co-Chair of the Link Marine Group and Head of Fisheries & Aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society

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