Newlyn Quayside
© Natasha Ewins

What do MPAs mean for sea users?

Most MPAs are set up to manage activities that could damage the marine environment. Where sites may have been damaged in the past, protected status excludes damaging activities and allows places to recover. Where places are recognised as high quality and diverse, protection ensures they are not damaged in the future. In time MPAs will demonstrate what our seas are capable of if they are managed with the long term health and wellbeing of people and marine life in mind.

Once a Marine Protected Area is designated some activities taking place within it may need to change or may be restricted. This is because some activities can damage the wildlife and habitats the site was set up to protect. Anything that is not thought to damage the site should be allowed to continue.

Which activities are considered damaging?

It’s important to remember that MPAs can be damaged by lots of different kinds of activity – it’s too simplistic to think that it’s all about commercial fishing. Damage can certainly occur from fishing activities, but other activities including sewage discharge, aggregate extraction, undersea cables, onshore developments, recreational activities, port dredging and shipping can also damage sites and affect the habitats and species that are supposed to be safeguarded.

Because different places can sustain different kinds of activity, something that is considered damaging in one place may not be a problem in another. For example, sea angling may not pose a threat on a reef site, but may be problematic if it is targeting a spawning area for an important species at another site. To try and achieve consistency, government bodies develop guidance on which activities are considered to damage which species and habitats. Regulators then use this advice to decide on management measures to suit particular sites. In some cases it’s pretty clear cut - for example, scallop dredging with heavy fishing gear is known to damage reef habitats, so should always be prevented in reef sites. On the other hand, handlining for mackerel in an MPA designated to protect reef features will have no impact on the reef, so should be allowed to continue.

Sometimes it is not as black and white – especially when an activity has taken place in a particular place for generations. For example, if a sandy or muddy seabed has been trawled for generations, this is likely to have shaped the undersea landscape – just like farming does on land. In a situation like that it’s more difficult to understand how the original habitat may have functioned and it can be about removing the activity that has changed the site to allow it to return to a more natural state. This is a bit like allowing a field that used to be in cultivation to return to woodland.

Regulators also need to consider the fact that activities that take place outside an MPA boundary could affect what happens inside it. For example, where sand or gravel is being dredged from the seabed it stirs up sediment and this can travel in the water from outside a site and smother sensitive marine life in an MPA somewhere nearby.

MCS works on the principle that no activities should be allowed either within or near to an MPA, that could damage the wildlife and habitats it was designated t protect or harm the functioning of the ecosystem. Where there is uncertainty, we support site managers erring on the side of caution. If there is any doubt over whether any new activity may cause damage, then it should be proven that the activity is safe before it is allowed to go ahead.

Actions you can take

  1. Browse Marine Protected Areas
  2. Report your wildlife sightings

Did you know?…

Over 500,000 records of undersea species and habitats have been collected by volunteer Seasearch divers

To the shelf limits, Scotland has 61% of UK waters, of which 23% are now in existing or new ‘marine protected areas’