Expert review backs our call for gold-standard protection of UK seas – now it’s time to get on with it!

Date posted: 8 June 2020

Last October we asked for your help to ‘Make Highly Protected Marine Areas Happen’ and more than 5,000 of you responded. Today, on World Ocean Day, the Benyon Review into Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) has been released, recognising the incredible value of HPMAs and recommending to the Government that they should be put in place urgently.

Beachy Head MCZ
© Benjamin Davies

The Government has a historic opportunity to make much-needed changes to the way we protect our seas and just needs to get on with it! We have less than 10 years to take action to reduce the worst effects of climate change.

Peter Richardson,
Head of Ocean Recovery

A huge thank you from us to all of you who supported us last year, and who have joined us in fighting for better protections for our ocean for decades. We hope that this Review is a step in the right direction to safeguarding our seas in the near future.

HPMAs are ‘gold standard’ zones which should offer the best protection for our ocean, banning damaging activities that have decimated wildlife and habitats. Marine biologists around the world consider them to be the most effective way of restoring degraded marine ecosystems and recovering marine wildlife populations. It’s encouraging to see the Review agree with this, and recommend that HPMAs are designated in English seas in order to protect marine biodiversity and important ‘blue carbon’ habitats which help combat climate change.

Just like nature reserves and national parks on land, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are set up to look after particular seascapes, habitats and species. Of the 355 MPAs in UK seas, only four are fully protected from all extractive activities, covering less than 20km2. All other UK MPAs allow some extractive or damaging activities (e.g. fishing, aggregate extraction, angling etc.) within their boundaries. In their current form, MPAs are little more than ‘paper parks’, lacking the protections they urgently need.

The Review recommends that some existing MPAs should be considered for upgrading to HPMA status, meaning protections will go a step further by taking a ‘whole-site approach’ to protection, excluding all damaging activities across the site, rather than protecting just one species or habitat. The Review also recommends that ‘blue carbon’ habitats are identified for HPMA designation, recognising the incredible power of the UK’s marine and coastal habitats such as seabed, seagrass, and saltmarsh to lock down atmospheric CO2 and help combat climate change.

Whilst we’re pleased to see these recommendations in the Review report, we want the Government to act swiftly on the review and properly invest in the work to get HPMAs in place, which is why we’re calling for designated HPMAs by World Oceans Day 2021, at the very latest!

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist Marine Protected Areas recalled: “The UK Government had an important opportunity to designate 65 HPMA sites in English waters back in 2013, but failed to do so, citing a ‘lack of evidence’ and bowing to pressure from industry and fishing lobbyists. As a result, key seabed habitats continue to be damaged and the health of our seas declines. This Review is promising, but means nothing if Government – after decades of delay – doesn’t at last grasp the nettle and get these essential management measures in place with urgency”

Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery said: “We welcome the conclusions of the Review, which support our long-held view that HPMAs should be introduced in UK waters, and the wishes of thousands of our supporters who also want to see real protection for our marine wildlife and habitats now. The Government has a historic opportunity to make much-needed changes to the way we protect our seas and just needs to get on with it! We have less than 10 years to take action to reduce the worst effects of climate change. Work now to establish a blue-belt of climate-smart HPMAs in our seas will lock down ‘blue carbon’ and help meet our net zero-carbon targets. MCS will use the findings of this Review to push Government to designate HPMAs in English waters within a year.”

Creating HPMAs in the UK’s waters will help return parts of our ocean to the most natural state possible. The Westminster Government has rightly supported extensive HPMA designations in our UK Overseas Territories, but not in the UK’s heavily-used domestic waters. By delivering the recommendations of this Review, the UK can start addressing the apparent imbalance of this approach and make a real difference to the future of our ocean.

You can find the full report on the Benyon Review here.

Find out more about our Ocean Recovery work here.

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