Seascape Scotland UK Mark Kirkland

Why Marine Protected Areas are important

4 minute read

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), like national parks and nature reserves on land, are set up to look after particular animals, plants and habitats at sea. There are currently 371 MPAs across UK seas, with 38% of UK waters now in designated protected areas.

How do MPAs work?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a globally recognised approach to halting biodiversity loss in our ocean and encouraging the recovery of marine wildlife and their habitats.

These sites can also safeguard and recover important 'blue carbon' habitats - those that absorb and store carbon - and help in our fight against climate change.

Protection of these areas takes many forms though most are designed to protect the seabed and the species and habitats that typically or naturally colonise them.

Crab on Maerl Porthkerris Cornwall England Kirsty Andrews

Crab on Maerl, Porthkerris, Cornwall

Credit: Kirsty Andrews

How are MPAs managed?

Managing an MPA means making sure that damaging human activity does not take place within certain sites, like bottom trawling in protected areas with vital sea bed habitats.

Fishing boats should be GPS tracked using Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) technology, regulations must be enforced through policing activity and penalties must be introduced for those breaking the rules.

Government conservation bodies carry out surveys to determine which habitats need protecting. This conservation advice from experts helps law makers understand how human activity may be disturbing species and ecosystems and what specific measures are needed to protect them.

Responsibility for enforcing these measures falls to various local and national authorities. Part of the challenge is that different areas of the sea are managed by different organisations, who all need to work together to ensure adequate protection. See Your questions answered for more detail.

Some MPAs are very large (Dogger Bank is about four times the size of the Lake District, for example, while the West of Scotland MPA is larger than Scotland itself), which makes monitoring and enforcing protections challenging, requiring significant resources and funding.

Small fishing trawler off the coast of Ayrshire, Scotland Norrie3699

Credit: Norrie3699 via Shutterstock

Fishing in MPAs

Fishing is allowed in almost all Marine Protected Areas but it has to be carefully monitored. It mustn't degrade the species or habitats which the area is designed to protect.

Commercial fishing that involves bottom-trawling (dragging weighted nets across the bottom of the seabed) or dredging (using heavy-duty metal framed nets) causes damage to the seabed, destroying precious ecosystems.

Much of the damage has been done over the last 130 years and continuing to trawl the seabed prevents the potential for recovery.

In 2021, we released a report which found that bottom trawling is taking place in 98% of the UK's offshore Marine Protected Areas designed to protect vital seabed habitats.

Trawler Net on commercial fishing boat Anney Lier

Credit: Anney Lier via Shutterstock

Want to know more about fishing methods?

Fishing methods explained

How MPAs can help combat climate change

Marine Protected Areas play a vital role in combatting climate change.

Marine ecosystems ‘draw down’ carbon dioxide from the water and atmosphere, just like plants and trees on land. This is known as blue carbon.

Blue carbon can be in the plants themselves, like seaweed and seagrass; in the seafloor sediment where seagrass is rooted, animals live and detritus settles; or even in the animals which live in the water, including seabirds, fish and larger mammals.

When these habitats are degraded and the seabed is disturbed, stored carbon is released back into the water column and could re-enter the atmosphere. By protecting and rewilding our marine environments, we can keep carbon locked in the ocean through increased numbers of marine species and healthier marine habitats.

The road to recovery

Our MPAs are not only vast in number – there are currently 371 across UK seas – but also in scale, with 38% of UK waters now in designated protected areas.

Currently, many of the UK's MPAs are dubbed 'paper parks': their protections are little more than lines on a map. For these sites to be truly effective, they must be properly managed. This means banning damaging activity from certain sites, like bottom trawling vital seabed habitats. We need governments to lead with proper regulation, controls, enforcement and monitoring.

At present only 6% of offshore MPAs with protected seabed habitats are protected from bottom-towed fishing gear, like bottom trawls.

Empty and broken scallop shells possibly due to the raking action of dredges Lyme Bay Scotland Colin Munro.

Credit: Colin Munro/Marine-bio-images

How we're making a difference

For nearly 40 years, we've been fighting for a cleaner, better-protected and healthier ocean. We do this by:

  • Carrying out practical conservation activities with volunteers and partners to collect and share scientific evidence, using this data to better understand our seas and inform our work.
  • Influencing politicians and businesses to make policy, legislative and practical changes. We challenge those responsible when laws are not enforced, and we influence investment and procurement decisions.
  • Engaging communities to get involved in our campaigns and call for action to protect our seas.
  • Educating and influencing people and businesses to understand the value of a healthy ocean and change their behaviour.

Our work has resulted in over 50 Marine Protected Areas in inshore waters receiving bans on damaging fishing activity, like bottom trawling and dredging.

We have enabled legislation in Scotland, England and Wales. Our campaigns have mobilised over 100,000 UK citizens to call for truly protected Marine Protected Areas.

Rewilding our waters

We work alongside communities, with UK and devolved governments and local regulators to make sure that any management measures put in place work for everyone.

Here are some examples of what we're doing to protect and rewild our waters, together with our partners:

Read more about our UK projects.

Seasearch

Seasearch is a project for recreational divers and snorkellers who collect information about marine habitats, plants and animals that only they see under the water.

Our volunteers have collected data for over 30 years, making a huge difference to much we know about British and Irish marine life.

The information collected by Seasearch divers helps everybody responsible for marine nature conservation to identify what’s special about different areas, what’s going on that may be affecting them and to make informed decisions about protection or regulatory measures.

Find out more about our Seasearch project.

We're defending Marine Protected Areas

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