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Government pledges to protect a third of seas by 2024

2 minute read

Ocean Recovery Team

9 Jun 2021

This year’s World Ocean Day was a landmark one for the protection of our seas as minister's pledged to protect 30% of the waters around the UK within three years.

After years of campaigning it’s incredibly encouraging to see Westminster making progress on some of the most pressing issues facing our seas.

Following the release of our Marine unProtected Areas report in January and our Blue Carbon report in May this year, we’re pleased to see a commitment from Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, to implement byelaws to manage fishing activity in all offshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2024 - a key ask in both of our reports.

The Marine unProtected Areas report found bottom trawling is taking place in 98% of the UK’s offshore MPAs intended to protect vital seabed habitats. So, this commitment is a huge win for our seas. But we need to be sure that this means our MPAs are managed properly and that all damaging activities, in particular bottom-towed fishing gear, are excluded from all the sites in the next three years.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, our Principle Specialist in Marine Protected Areas and co-author of the Marine unprotected Areas report said:

“To have a government that is committing to over 66,000km2 of Marine Protected Areas being managed against damaging bottom trawling at last bring us up to pace with other forward-thinking nations such as Australia and New Zealand.

“The next 3 years could  be massive for our seas. Now the government just needs to deliver.”

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In June 2019 an independent review of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), referred to as the ‘Benyon Review’, was launched as part of the UK Government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state than they inherited.

In October 2019 the call for evidence was launched and we asked for your help to ‘Make Highly Protected Marine Areas Happen’. The Review, which is being led by former MP Lord Benyon, recognised how vital these protections are for safeguarding the future health of the ocean.

On World Ocean Day the UK Government published its response to the review, which includes plans to assess other potential benefits of HPMAs, including tourism.

Plans to launch pilot HPMAs would see a ban on all harmful activities in selected sites. HPMAs will work within the UK’s existing MPA network, with some existing MPAs set to be upgraded to HPMA status. Other recommendations the government has agreed to include taking a ‘whole site’ approach to conserve all marine habitats within the site. Conservation objectives will also be set to monitor and evaluate progress.

Blue carbon habitats will also benefit from protection in HPMAs, with climate change mitigation outlined as one of the key aims for the protected sites.

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Dr Peter Richardson, our Head of Ocean Recovery, said: “Highly protected sites are known to be the most effective tool for marine wildlife recovery. New sites in our waters would provide significant benefits for threatened marine species and habitats. Very few of the UK’s MPAs currently exclude the most damaging activities from the whole of the site; the implementation of HPMAs should exclude all extractive and damaging activity from selected areas with sensitive habitats and make a real difference to protecting our fantastic marine wildlife.”

“Today’s announcement is encouraging, but there is much more we must do to help our ocean recover. We believe that at least 30% of UK seas must be highly protected from the most damaging activities by 2030, including 10% of our seas fully protected from all extractive activities, to support sustainable fisheries, protect our blue carbon stores and help our amazing marine life recover.”

These commitments from Westminster are certainly a step in the right direction, and in the coming months and years we’ll be campaigning to ensure that only the best protection is implemented in our offshore MPAs by 2024.