Kelp, Orkney, Scotland. Alison Moore

UK MPA history


Domestic legislation to set up nature reserves at sea under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) enabled 3 sites to be protected in inshore seas: Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland, Lundy in the Bristol Channel and Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The same legislation has set up over 4,000 SSSIs on land.

Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are sites designated under the EU Birds Directive. Together with Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), these are referred to as Natura sites, and are internationally important for threatened habitats and species.


Between 1982 and 2003, 101 SPAs were designated where at least part of the site extends into the marine environment.


By the year 2000, 2 of the original 3 marine nature reserves (Lundy and Skomer) had laws in place to restrict damaging scallop dredging and at Lundy Island, a no-take-zone was set up in the northeast of the island in 2003 to restrict all fishing, with a subsequent large increase in the numbers of lobsters in the site. Strangford Lough was scallop dredged during the 1990’s and early into the 2000’s prompting local NGOs to make a complaint to the EU over damage to this site, with the site protected from such activity by 2003. As a result of this delay in protection, the area of healthy Modiolus (mussel) reef was much reduced. However, after a decade of controlling all forms of commercial fishing, the reef is recovering.

UK Government used EU laws to progress the number of sites with SAC and SPA designations after the EU Directive was turned into UK Regulations in 1994. SPAs and SACs were only designated in inshore waters until 1999 when Greenpeace won a court case requiring that the UK (and other member states of the EU) to set up sites in offshore waters.


A subsequent result was that The Darwin Mounds offshore SAC (185km Northwest of Scotland) – was closed to bottom trawling in 2003. This was a seminal period in the history of application of the Directive.

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are designated under the EC Habitats Directive for habitats and species listed in Annex I and II of the Directive. SACs with marine components are sites that contain qualifying marine habitats or species.

This was a period of expansion in the number and area of sites covered by these European regulations, resulting in sites set up to protect our most outstanding sites. Very little systematic advice from UK Government was offered to regulators on what the designations and rules of law meant for fishing activities within these sites during this period. This led to continuous persistent incidences of damage by fishing activities.

In some areas where infrastructural developments were perceived to be in the national interests (e.g. Milford Haven, Wales for the construction of a Liquid Natural Gas pipeline from shore to vessels berthed in the Haven), some habitats were damaged (e.g. maerl). There were examples of where the Habitats & Birds Directives were effective in preventing damaging infrastructure developments (e.g. Dibden Bay in Hampshire in the area of the Solent and Southampton water SPA). Examples of joint working to meet both commercial and environmental interests started to develop in some sites (e.g. Port of Humber) where work between the port, NGOs, regulators and NE was able to mitigate damage. Within this SPA the creation of ‘new’ coastal habitat mitigated for the loss of bird habitat in the area of the expanded port, having a net positive impact on wildlife.


Some regulatory measures were introduced for shellfisheries that affected bird food stocks after discussions between regulators, fishers and Natural England (e.g. cockles in Morecombe Bay and The Wash). But, in terms of bottom trawling and scallop dredging, regulations were introduced after damage occurred (e.g. Firth of Lorn and Loch Creran in Scotland following groundbreaking complaints to the European Commission by local campaigners that helped set the template (2007), Fal and Helford in England (2008), Pembrokeshire Marine SAC and Cardigan Bay in Wales (2010)).


MCS campaigned heavily to protect the Fal, whilst MCS and other eNGOs were key to illustrating unsustainable levels of nomadic fishing pressure in Welsh MPAs between 2008 and 2010. In all these sites the growing scallop dredge fishery was attracted by an increased inshore stock, a lack of restrictive quotas (catch as many as they could handle that is still the case), coupled with prohibitive quotas on white fish. This led to an increasingly invasive fishery that impacted on inshore seabed habitats more severely this century.

2008 and 2009 were very important years for UK seas, with the publication of 'Unnatural History of the Sea' (Callum Roberts), and the ‘End of the Line’ (Charles Clover) book and film. Defra was developing legislation for the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009), with the passage of the bill through the House of Commons detailing the poor state of the sea. Furthermore, cases by the Wildlife Trust against scallop dredging in Lyme Bay, and by the MCS over such dredging in Fal and Helford SAC led to Statutory Instruments. Statutory Instruments are ministerial orders, rather than byelaws that are generally signed off by local regulators.

Nature conservation extending to 12 nautical miles from the coast was legislatively devolved to the Scottish Parliament in 1998. In 2008, nature conservation was executively devolved between 12 and 200 nautical miles, whereas previously there had been no devolution beyond 12nm.


UK Government set up the 10 ‘Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities’ (IFCAs), that differed from the predecessors, the Sea Fisheries Committees. IFCAs had much stronger statutory functions to manage the inshore seas (0-6nm) for reasons of biodiversity conservation enshrined in the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2010), and in the Habitats and Birds Regulations.

2010 The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 required Scottish Ministers to protect and, where appropriate enhance, the health of Scotland’s seas, establish a National Marine Plan within the framework of the UK Marine Policy Statement, and create an ecologically-coherent network of Marine Protected Areas in Scotland’s waters, as well as introducing new licensing powers and seal conservation measures. Development of nature conservation MPAs in all of Scotland’s waters (61% of UK total) was thereafter to be led by Scottish Ministers, with inshore sites designated under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 and offshore sites, with UK Secretary of State approval, under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. For more details see, the collaboration we lead in Scotland. MPA reality check maps all current fisheries management measures in MPAs in all four UK nations. Future iterations will update measures to restrict all forms of bottom towed fishing. We have provided additional detailed information for England’s MPAs such as areas closed to bottom towed fishing in different IFCA districts, and how much of each habitat is closed.


In 2012 after a legal campaign by MCS and ClientEarth from 2008, Defra announced and published a 'revised approach' to fisheries management in MPAs. This initially resulted in 25 inshore MPAs being protected from scallop dredging and trawling by 2014 – this closed approximately 3,000km2 of seabed to bottom trawl and dredging. This was principally in reef areas where boats very seldom visit. Initial closures in 2013 and 2014 were made to protect so-called 'red-risk' maerl, biogenic & geogenic reef, seagrass beds – all habitats deemed too vulnerable to withstand any form of bottom towed fishing gear. From 2015 up until the present day, IFCAs are struggling with limited budgets to deliver on their statutory requirements to protect the MCZs in addition to the European Marine Site MPAs.


2013 The Marine (Northern Ireland) Act 2013 requires DAERA to establish a network of MPAs in the Northern Ireland inshore region and prepare marine plans in the framework of the UK Marine Policy Statement.

Between 2013 and 2019, UK Government designated a total of 91 Marine Conservation Zones in addition to the existing network of SACs and SPAs in English inshore and offshore waters. This makes the English network considerable with 178 MPAs covering 92,000km2 or 40% of England’s seas. 16,000km2 of the inshore area within control of IFCAs is within MPAs of which IFCAs have published that 3,980km2 (or nearly 25% of all MPA surface area) is closed to all forms of bottom towed gears. Most of the closures are over reef habitat (see maps on this website). Very little sand habitat is protected across the British Isles due to the prevalence and power of the trawl fleet in decisions on fishing pressure, and where MPAs have been designed. The protection of mud habitat is even more sparse when it comes to controlling nephrops trawling effort, particularly for the Northern North Sea, Irish sea, and west coast of Scotland where this gear comes into conflict with creel (pot) fishing for nephrops, particularly close to the coast where small day boats operate winch-hauled lines of pots that lie on the seabed without moving.


In July 2014, the Scottish Government designated 30 new nature conservation Marine Protected Areas (ncMPAs) under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 (for inshore territorial waters to 12 nautical miles) and Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (for offshore waters beyond 12nm). These new sites augmented the existing network of EU marine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), increasing the area of Scotland’s seas within the emerging MPA network from 12% to 23%.


In 2016, the Inner Hebrides and Minches SAC, Scotland’s first for harbour porpoise, was created off the West of Scotland and the first and currently only demonstration and research MPA designated around Fair Isle, between Shetland and Orkney. In 2017, the Loch Carron urgent MPA was designated following scallop dredge damage to the sea loch and made permanent in 2019. In 2020, the vast West of Scotland MPA (the largest in Europe covering over 107,000km2), four large long-awaited inshore MPAs for basking sharks, minke whales, Risso’s dolphin and seabed features and 12 marine bird Special Protection Areas (SPAs) were all designated. In 2021, the Red Rocks and Longay urgent MPA to protect a flapper skate egg-laying site was designated. Collectively, Scotland’s network now comprises 245 sites (with 231 for conservation purposes), encompassing 37% of Scotland’s seas, and accounting for 52% by area of the entire UK MPA network, but how much is actually protected in the water?

In 2016, Northern Ireland designated 4 inshore Marine Conservation Zones, Rathlin, Waterfoot, Outer Belfast Lough and Carlingford Lough. It has 5 in total, as Strangford Lough automatically became an MCZ from having been a ‘Marine Nature Reserve’ under the old Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). It was automatically re-designated in 2009 when the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act came into power. In 2020, DAERA launched a consultation on the potential for closing large parts or all of 9 inshore MPAs to recover the seabed.

Northern Ireland Government has been designating MPAs of EU designation, and national sites over the last 3 decades. Four national MPA sites were initially designated in December 2016 in addition to 7 SACs and 9 SPAs.


2018 Wales has joint legislation with England (the Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009), in 2018 competency to designate site in the Welsh Offshore, beyond 12nm, was devolved to Welsh Government, extending the limit to 100 nautical miles.