Grey Seals in the surf Loch Eriboll Scotland Kirsty Andrews

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This site intends to show the public, journalists and politicians Marine Protected Area management and governance in places set up to protect our important wildlife hotspots. We have promoted it to international practitioners. Whilst there has been progress within the IFCAs to get regulations in place, there has been an inability to get regulations in place in offshore sites (outside 12nm) up until the end of 2021.

Given the data from our understanding of MPAs in relation to effective ecosystem-based fisheries management in English waters (that at least require bottom trawl and scallop dredge closures), as of the end of September 2020, of the current 58,000km2 of MPAs designated to protect the seabed, only 4,811km2 (8.33%) is permanently protected from all types of bottom towed fishing gears. Of England’s entire sea area (241,576km2), 4,811km2 is only 2%.

Of all Scotland’s seas designated for protection of seabed features in MPAs (90 sites equalling 197,000km2), 156,800km2 is protected from all forms of bottom towed fishing gears. 153,300km2 is protected from these fishing gears in offshore waters – these are over 800m deep that are protected by a ban on trawling below this depth for ALL Europe’s seas to safeguard deep sea habitats. 3,500km2 is protected in Scotland’s inshore waters that are MPAs designated to protect the seabed. The total area of MPAs designated to protect the seabed in Scotland’s inshore waters are 8400km2. So far, only highly vulnerable sites have been protected from scallop dredgers and (predominantly) nephrops beam trawlers. Academics have calculated that this only equates to stopping dredging and trawling in about 1% of the area that they have historically used.

In Wales the figure is 13km2 (0.04% Welsh waters) that is Skomer Island – the only place where all forms of bottom trawling and scallop dredging are restricted. Wales has stopped scallop dredging in all its SACs apart from an outer area of Cardigan Bay. This law was passed in 2010. However, it hasn’t followed this up by any restrictions on otter trawling or beam trawling by Welsh or other vessels. Wales waters cover 30,778 km square of which all marine SACs other than a section of Cardigan Bay SAC are closed to scallop dredging.

9% of Northern Ireland’s seas are in MPAs designed to protect the seabed.  187km2  (approximately 30% of the total current area of MPAs designated to protect the seabed - 619km2). These currently are at Rathlin Island and Strangford Lough. MPAs are only currently protecting bottom towed fishing gear in approximately 2.7% of all NI seas as they cover 6819km.

A brief guide to MPA management in England

MPA – Marine Protected Area. A ‘catch-all’ term for all types of designation.

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 (see ‘statistics’ page). We have also provide stats on inshore and offshore MPA statistics for devolved nations.

Currently the UK has retained European Marine Sites since leaving the European Union on 1st Jan 2021 (after which the terms of the ‘Trade and Cooperation Agreement’ came into force). The UK transferred all existing legislation to protect such sites from activities into UK law at that time.


European environmental law requires Member State Governments to set up protected areas to ensure the protection of biodiversity both on land and in the sea. These sites are called Special Areas of Conservation or SACs for flora and fauna and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds. Collectively these are known as 'European Marine Sites', collectively making up a network of ‘Natura 2000’ marine sites. Government conservation bodies such as Natural England & JNCC carry out surveys, and in consultation with stakeholders determine where these habitats and species are and identify appropriate boundaries for MPAs. These sites remain as designated sites in UK waters after Brexit (under the UK ‘Habitats Regulations’).

SACs are not designated to protect areas as such, but to protect specific features within those areas (such as seagrass bed or pink sea fans). Designation orders for each site name the features which are formally protected, Conservation Objectives for the areas state whether features need to be 'restored to' or 'maintained at' to ‘favourable conservation’ status.

Once a site has been designated, the law requires that the designated features within a site reach, or are maintained at favourable conservation status. In order to do this, human activities that are, or are likely to have an impact on them need to be managed in some way. The management of sites places specific obligations on different agencies to ensure that appropriate and 'proportionate' measures are put in place. The process has been set out within the Directives and established within National Regulations on how this is carried out.

English Government has two statutory conservation advisors: Natural England (NE) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). In the marine environment it is Natural England that provides conservation advice for sites that are within territorial waters (up to 12 nautical miles) and the JNCC who provide advice for offshore sites outside of territorial waters. Often their advice is aligned, particularly where MPAs straddle this boundary.

The conservation advice is used by Relevant Authorities to understand the ecological requirements of the site and provide a clear indication of which human operations might cause species and habitats to be disturbed or damaged (see the designated sites system (DSS) of NE). In the marine environment, Relevant Authorities are bodies such as Harbour Authorities, Local Authorities, Water companies or the Environment Agency and Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities that have local powers and functions that take this advice and act on it. They have a fundamental bearing on how the marine environment is protected based on their understanding of local socio-economic needs and their local understanding of conservation advice, and the law.

The process through which the need for management is assessed for SACs and SPAs is known as an 'Appropriate Assessment' for any new project within or adjacent to a site that may affect its conservation status. This assessment has a very strong level of precautionary protection built into its rules. Such an assessment would normally be carried out by a consultant on behalf of a developer who wanted to undertake a plan or project in (or near) an SAC or SPA. This process considers the likely impact of the plan or project on the ecological integrity of the site, its protected features and typical species. The decision on whether to license an activity ultimately rests with the MMO (Marine Management Organisation) for recreational and major infrastructural developments. The MMO also manages fisheries in offshore MPAs beyond 12nm with advice from JNCC on likely significant effects of fishing gears.

Fishing Activity is being handled through a separate process due to its more widespread nature and high variance of gear types and activities. Fishing activities have been ranked according to their potential impact to features, and the 10 English inshore IFCAs (Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities) and the MMO have been tasked with ensuring that where features could be damaged from fishing gear, then byelaws are introduced to restrict activities. This is an ongoing process to ensure that features in new MPAs will be managed if they are likely to be sensitive to fishing activities. Such assessments are made through ‘risk matrices’ of likely threat from individual fishing activities on individual MPA features.  MCZs, which were designated in three tranches (2013, 2016 and 2019) subsequent to SACs and SPAs, are subject to a similar analysis of risk and threat from fishing, and are therefore subsumed into the same regional and local risk matrices by IFCAs.

Estuaries such as the Fal and Helford, Tamar, Solent, Humber and Severn, where there is a wide variety and high intensity of human activities, have management schemes which allow Relevant Authorities to operate collaboratively. These groups determine activities that may incur risk of damaging sites – be they ongoing activities, new plans or projects, and indeed so-called ‘in combination’ effects whereby different activities combine to make a significant impact.

Surveys to determine the status of a feature need to take place as part of a regular reporting process for European Marine Sites. Such 'condition assessments' provide conservation advisors with the information they need to determine if management is effective. Yet the funding and science to make these assessments is significantly lacking to effectively manage our expansive MPA network, and gauge impact. As such, conservation advisors most often use ‘expert judgment’ based on peer-reviewed science of similar interactions elsewhere, and/or scale up their assessments based on small-scale monitoring projects. This is not ideal, but a reasonable approach to managing our large MPA network given resource constraints.

Effective management at sea

On land, it is normal to carry out conservation by managing land in a more active sense, for example by creating ponds and hedgerows. It is also possible to map and assess the health and extent of species and habitats relatively easily and robustly using ecological observation, transects & camera traps by individual observers using relatively simple equipment. At sea, this is much more difficult since we don’t have the resources or technology to do this at large scales. Active intervention to artificially ‘create’ marine habitats is expensive, and can only be undertaken in relatively shallow waters at present (e.g. saltmarsh, seagrass, dune habitats). In most instances and areas of MPAs we need to rely on habitats being protected from damaging human activities to recover themselves – at nature’s pace - once the damage is stopped. The speed and nature of this recovery is inherently uncertain, as indeed is the course of recovery itself.

As such – compared to terrestrial examples, the use of the precautionary principle is particularly relevant to managing the marine environment; it essentially means that where you are not sure about what is the result of individual or combinations of human activities on the environment, it is best to err on the side of protection and restriction. For most habitats and species that live in the sea for which we have designated MPAs, it is very difficult to determine their condition and if they are getting 'better' or 'worse' in their target of achieving 'favourable conservation status'. It is often difficult to separate natural variation in habitat condition and natural disturbance with impacts caused by humans. We often need to rely on general indicators and published science in order to extrapolate and model our knowledge from one site across others.

The use of expert advice and precaution has an important role to play in identifying when a feature is likely to be sensitive to certain fishing gears. Ultimately, we need to ensure that MPAs are being effective in their job of protecting our marine habitats and species from harm caused by humans. Over time, we will gain a greater knowledge of how different marine species and habitats are impacted and how they recover. This is particularly the case where we have science being undertaken on some of the relationships in the ‘risk matrix’ discussed above. Predominant within this effort has been to understand the relationship between bottom towed fishing gears and seabed habitats from reefs, to cobble reefs, to rich sandy sediments. Studies on the impacts of port and aggregate dredging, the impacts of upstream water quality, and recreational activities have been useful for assessing plans and projects in sites. The offshore sea area is also benefitting from science undertaken within our developing and expanding offshore wind industry.

Marine Conservation Zones

Marine Conservation Zones are being set up under the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) in order to capture the full range of marine habitats and species. Government’s conservation advisors produced guidelines in 2010 on the proportion of habitats (such as mud, sand and reef) and particular threatened species (such as ocean quahogs, seahorses and pink sea-fans) to ensure a full range of UK marine biodiversity is protected in addition to existing SACs and SPAs.

91 MCZs have been designated around England in three tranches (27 in 2013; 23 in 2016; and 41 in 2019). Management measures have been established by IFCAs for 98 inshore MCZs, SACs and SPAs, and the MMO for a very few offshore sites (sites so far that straddle the 6mile and 12mile boundary). Some existing measures (such as set-net bans in estuaries) also cover many of the needs to protect the seabed and associated species and ecosystems (e.g. for ‘fish’ as typical species of estuarine habitats).

Byelaw implementation to prevent bottom trawling and scallop dredging has been slow up to 2019 relative to the size and impact of the fishery, and its increasing intensity since the 1980’s – particularly for non-quota scallops. This is not least because of the 'feature-based approach' to management whereby regulators (with advice from Natural England) need to justify conservation measures to protect individual features within sites, and assess condition. If condition is considered to be good, then activities can usually continue. This is at odds with a new initiative being considered by UK Government to manage sites using a 'Whole Sites Approach'. The Marine Conservation Society has inputted to this initiative with collaborators from academia. A consortia of fisheries managers, lawyers, academics and campaigners published a paper in 2020 to illustrate a collective will to deliver more effective MPAs.

For sites that currently aren’t perceived as being heavily fished, regulators are disinclined to introduce regulation (e.g. North Cornish coast; Essex coastal waters; Beam and otter trawling in Welsh MPAs). It is often the case that information on assessment of site condition are made is by word of mouth & personal knowledge, rather than from scientifically collected data (using adequate ‘controls’). For example, the North Cornish tranche 2 MCZ of Hartland Point to Tintagel is unlikely to get a ban on bottom trawling largely because it is perceived to be in an area of such strong tide and swell with bottom features of hard rock, that it is considered difficult to bottom trawl or dredge. Similarly, the partial management of Essex estuaries by Kent and Essex IFCA is justified because of a lack of seabed data, and limited fishing boat observation in the site, rather than any clear scientific understanding of the impact of infrequent trawling activity in this part of the site. Northumberland IFCA aren’t regulating bottom trawling for light otter trawls in the Coquet to St Mary’s MCZ. Decisions are based on word-of-mouth and limited enforcement patrol activity, so fishing may be occurring more regularly than is observed by fisheries regulators and their enforcement officers (of IFCA and MMO patrol vessels).

As of early 2022, there is still no comprehensive national onboard satellite monitoring of vessel movement (referred to as ‘inshore Vessel Monitoring System’). There has been plans for this since 2010. It would allow for understanding of wider fishing activity, could provide virtual ‘geofences’ around MPAs that would automatically send messages to vessels that they are approaching MPA boundaries, and restricted areas. So it could be used as a data surveillance tool for an – as yet – invisible part of our fleet. And as 80% of the commercial fishing industry, it is necessary to ‘see’ these vessels in order for our MPAs to be considered ‘well-managed’.

The Marine Management Organisation is tasked with delivering management for our offshore MPAs, predominantly of fishing activities in English waters. It receives nature conservation advice from JNCC.

When we were part of the EU, offshore management measures were introduced under consultation and mediation with other member states with fishing interests in UK sites. This has led to very slow processes of introducing weak management. From 2016 to 2018 the UK submitted a number of management recommendations for offshore English MCZs and SACs for consultation with other member states. The Scottish Government submitted proposed fisheries management measures for MPAs and SACs in the offshore zone adjacent to Scotland in 2017.

In summer 2019, environmental charities across Europe challenged (via a formal complaint) the effectiveness and legality of proposed management measures for the large Dogger Bank offshore Special Area of Conservation that sits astride UK, Netherlands and German Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Some argue that the only way to achieve consensus on managing fishing activities in offshore MPAs with neighbouring member states is to have such weak measures, that integrity of the MPAs is compromised whilst profitable fishing activity persists. A subsequent report released in October 2020 to both the UK and EU by a group of NGOs (including the MCS) has called for a total ban of all bottom towed fishing gear in the site that is pursuant to the law and current ecological evidence. The NGOs view is that partial protection of the site comprises the ‘integrity’ of the site.

The UK Government launched a consultation on management measures for 4 offshore MPAs in English waters – 2 MCZs, and 2 SACs in February 2021. This includes a potential to close the entire Dogger Bank to all forms of mobile bottom contact fishing gear. This would increase the area of the UK protected by such a measure by over 12,300km2.

The 10 English IFCAs (inshore fisheries and conservation authorities) have emerged from the old ‘Sea Fisheries Committees’ that were in place up until 2009. Since 2009, IFCAs have had a role in managing the inshore seas, and are part funded by local authorities and Defra. They have committees that are made up of councillors (representing local communities and the funding from local government), fishers and conservationists. Day to day work by the staff of each IFCA reports to these committees, but decision-making power lies within the committees that are advised by IFCA staff. They vote on new and updated regulations for the management of Marine Protected Areas and to set sustainable fishing limits in their districts. The MMO ‘balances’ the committee membership by recruiting from conservation and industry such that a range of views is given and represented.

Full time work by IFCA staff involves scientific research, regulation, surveillance and enforcement of vessels in their district. They have also been given the job of trying to manage and control the activities of the recreational angling sector – bait digging is a particularly difficult issue to manage, and is a considerable activity focused in estuaries on mudflats. A large part of the IFCA work since 2012 has been to implement management measures as illustrated in this website was to theoretically achieve 'well-managed' MPAs by the end of 2016 (as part of a political target set by OSPAR that the UK is a signatory to). The resulting 'revised approach' to the policy of fisheries management in MPAs was facilitated by NGOs (predominantly ClientEarth and MCS) undertaking a legal campaign from 2009 to 2012 against the MMO for licensing fishing vessels without consideration of the environmental impact of fishing in MPAs.

Securing effective management for all UK MPAs won't be achieved until well after 2022, as it is a lengthy process to gather the evidence alongside NE and JNCC, and then to apply measures in the current regime. On the socio-cultural side, it is difficult to convince some IFCA committee members that regulation & control is 'good' for biodiversity, society and fisheries alike. The 'Fisheries Act' that has come into force since Brexit to replace the Common Fisheries Policy has measures that should help secure more MPA management: for example, fishing methods must prove they are 'climate-friendly', won’t harm MPAs, and support other aspects of environmental health. UK Government has set itself a target of management of ALL English offshore MPAs by 2025. That is an ambitious target.

Once sites are set up, a process of monitoring and reporting is currently required from sites every 6 years for SACs and MCZs in England. This is particularly difficult under current budgetary constraints with such a large MPA network (funding to IFCAs, NE and JNCC has not increased relative to the increased extent of our waters in MPAs). Some public/private partnership projects are helping in a handful of sites throughout the UK.

Most recent updates (January 2022)

A further 41 MCZs were designated in English waters (and an additional 12 'features' added to the current site network) in May 2019. This additional 12,000km2 tranche meant that a total of 25% of UK waters was in the largely completed UK MPA network as of the end of 2019. In September 2020, Scottish Government designated the 'West of Scotland MPA' - the largest MPA in Europe measuring 107,718 km2, increasing the MPA coverage of UK waters to 38% (JNCC).

The network comprises 115 SACs, 112 SPAs, 97 MCZ (91 in England, 5 In Northern Ireland and one in Wales), and, following the addition of the vast 'West of Scotland' MPA, 36 Scottish nature conservation MPAs: In December 2020, Scotland designated 4 final ncMPAs: North-east Lewis, Shiant East Bank, Sea of the Hebrides and the Southern Trench. Consultation to make permanent a possible 37th in Scotland, the Red Rocks and Longay urgent MPA for a flapper skate egg-laying site was launched in February 2022.

The 2019 tranche of English MCZs were considered to be 'the most difficult' to designate, as they were in remaining habitats and areas of greatest interest to EU and UK fishing fleets. The JNCC hosted a workshop in November 2016 to get updated views on potential site modifications and completely new sites that lessen the impact on UK fishing fleets but allow percent targets for sands, gravels and muds to be met (the habitats that were most lacking from the 2013 and 2016 designations, as they are targeted by most damaging fishing gears). An effective public campaign coordinated by MCS and the Wildlife Trusts resulted in over 40,000 positive responses to the consultation on the sites in summer 2019, enabling all sites to be designated.

In summer 2019 a review was called by the UK Government Secretary of State for Environment on Highly Protected Marine Areas. A review of the science for HPMAs was also published by CEFAS in Spring 2018. The total area of HPMAs in UK seas is less than 20km2 (January 2022). The review was published in summer 2020 recommending that sites be established for socio-economic and ecological reasons. There is no implementation plan currently set out by any devolved UK government to designate sites.

Scottish Government has a target of 10% of Scotland’s waters to be in HPMAs by 2025. An implementation plan by Welsh Government in 2012 to designate Highly Protected Marine Areas resulted in no sites being designated.

The implication of leaving the EU also hangs over the potential for our offshore MPAs. Measures for MPAs can be implemented post-Brexit by UK governments. They could theoretically introduce HPMAs on a large scale. Such management considerations are likely to be balanced against potential tariffs that could be introduced by other member states that are currently negotiating continued access to UK waters.