Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are the most important tool that we have to ensure that marine wildlife is protected from human activities. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of progress around the UK in planning and designating new MPAs. In England we now have 39 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 50 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) covering approximately 16% of English waters. New byelaws have been enacted by Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agencies and the Marine Management Organisation to restrict human activities that are damaging to the protected features.

A brief guide to MPA management in England

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. Government conservation bodies such as Natural England carry out surveys, and in consultation with stakeholders determine where these habitats and species are and identify appropriate boundaries.

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

Once site has been designated, the law requires that the designated features within a site are able to reach 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.

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.

The conservation advice is prepared to help Relevant Authorities understand the ecological requirements of the site and a clear indication of which human operations might cause these species and habitats to be disturbed. In the marine environment, a Relevant Authority are bodies such as Ports, Local Authorities, Water companies or the Environment Agency who have local powers or functions that could have a bearing on how the marine environment is protected.

The process through which the need for management is assessed is known as an ‘Appropriate Assessment’. This would normally be carried out by a consultant on behalf of a developer who wanted to do something in (or near) an SAC. This process would consider the likely impact of the plan or project on the integrity of the protected features. The decision on whether to license an activity ultimately rests with the MMO (Marine Management Organisation).

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 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 these activities. This will be an ongoing process to ensure that features in new MPAs will be managed if they are likely to be sensitive to fishing activities.

Estuaries such as the Tamar, Humber and Severn where there are SACs in areas which also have a wide variety and high intensity of human activities have management schemes which allow Relevant Authorities to operate collaboratively.

Surveys to determine the status of a feature need to take place as part of a regular reporting process for European Marine Sites. These condition assessments provide conservation advisors with the information they need to determine if management is effective.

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. At sea, this is much more difficult since we don’t have the resources or technology to do this. We therefore need to rely on habitats being protected from damaging human activities to recover themselves. The speed and nature of this recovery is inherently uncertain.

The use of the precautionary principle is important; it essentially means that where you are not sure about what is happening, it is best to err on the safe side. For most habitats and species that live in the sea, it is very difficult to determine their condition and if they are getting better or worse. 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 or extrapolate and model our knowledge from one site across many 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.


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 some guidelines on the proportion of habitats (such as mud, sand and reef) and particular threatened species (such as ocean quahogs, seahorses and pink sea-fans) that they wanted to ensure were protected.

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 in a number of MCZs. Some existing measures (such as set-net bans in estuaries) also cover many of the needs to protect the seabed and associated ecosystems.

Byelaw implementation to prevent bottom trawling and scallop dredging has – up to 2019 - been slow relative to the size and impact of the fishery, and its growth since the 1980’s. This is not least because of the ‘feature-based approach’ to management whereby regulators (with advice from Natural England) need to justify measures to protect individual features within sites (not the entirety of 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.

This has resulted in the slow implementation of management measures, and uncertainty over the level of activity needing to be restricted. Should effort be restricted, or total bans put in place? Should the entirety of sites be protected? How big should buffers be?

For sites that currently aren’t perceived as being heavily fished, regulators are disinclined to introduce regulation. It is often the case that information on which such assessments are made is by word of mouth, rather than any onboard satellite monitoring of vessel movement (referred to as ‘inshore Vessel Monitoring System’). For example, the North Cornish tranche 2 MCZ of Hartland Point to Tintagel has not currently seen 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 impossible to bottom trawl or dredge. 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 in the Coquet to St Mary’s MCZ because of low observation rates of nephrops fishing in the site. These latter two 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.

Whilst we are part of the EU offshore management measures are introduced under consultation and mediation with other member states with fishing interests in UK sites. This has led to very slow processes of introducing management. Currently, the UK has submitted a number of management recommendations for offshore English MCZs and SACs. The Scottish Government submitted proposed fisheries management measures for MPAs and SACs in the offshore zone adjacent to Scotland in 2017, and is still awaiting them going through the CFP process.

In summer 2019, environmental charities across Europe challenged (via a formal complaint) the effectiveness and legality of proposed measures for the large Dogger Bank offshore Special Area of Conservation that sits astride UK, Netherlands and German 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.

The 10 English IFCAs (inshore fisheries and conservation authorities) have emerged from 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 the power is in the committees themselves to make laws, and change regulations as relating to protecting Marine Protected Areas. The MMO ‘balances’ the committee membership by recruiting from conservation and industry such that a range of views is given and represented at any one committee meeting.

Full time work by committee 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 to achieve 'well-managed' MPAs by the end of 2016. The resulting 'revised approach' to the policy of fishing in MPAs was facilitated by NGOs undertaking a legal campaign against the MMO for licensing fishing vessels without consideration of the environmental impact of fishing.

This won’t be achieved for all MCZs until after 2020, as it is a lengthy process to gather the evidence alongside NE and JNCC, and then to convince their committees that regulation is good for biodiversity and fisheries alike.

Once sites are set up, a process of monitoring and reporting is required from sites every 6 years for SACs and MCZs. This is difficult under current budgetary constraints. Some public/private partnership projects are helping in a few sites.

A further 41 MCZs designated in English waters (and an additional 12 ‘features’ added to the current site network) in May 2019. This additional 12,000km2 tranche means that a total of 25% of UK waters is now in the largely completed UK MPA network. The network comprises 115 SACs, 112 SPAs, 97 MCZ (91 in England, 5 In Northern Ireland and one in Wales when Skomer was transferred to MCZ status in 2015), and, following the addition of Loch Carron MPA being made permanent in May 2019, 31 Scottish nature conservation MPAs. In June 2019, Scotland launched a consultation on the potential designation of 4 further MPAs.

The new 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. 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). An effective public campaign coordinated by MCS and the Wildlife Trusts resulted in over 40,000 positive responses to the consultation.

In June 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 (as of December 2019).

Offshore site protection management measures have been submitted to the European Commission to introduce legislation for Scottish waters. The Scottish Government currently consider five offshore sites well managed from a fisheries perspective; a proposal for Stanton Banks SAC has been developed as part of a pilot process and is now ready for formal negotiations with other member states and updated proposals for the other 18 sites were published in April 2017 and a request sent to other member states asking them to confirm that the proposals had sufficient information to proceed to the formal negotiation stage.

The potential implications of leaving the EU also hangs over the potential for our offshore MPAs. Measures for MPAs may actually be implemented with Brexit, as UK authorities may act unilaterally to manage trawl fishing, and could introduce HPMAs on a large scale. But this is likely to be balanced against potential tariffs that could be introduced by member states that currently have fishing interest and access to our waters.

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 any offshore site (outside 12nm) up until the end of 2019.

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 December 2019, of the current 64,980km2 of MPAs, only 4,811km2 (7.4%) is permanently protected from all types of bottom towed fishing gears. Of England’s entire sea area (241,576km2), 4,811km2 is only 2%.