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 91 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) covering approximately 40% of English waters. Over 25 byelaws have been enacted by Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agencies and the Marine Management Organisation since 2014 to restrict fishing 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 for flora and fauna and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds. Collectively these are known as 'European Marine Sites' (as of 2020). Government conservation bodies such as Natural England & JNCC carry out surveys, and in consultation with stakeholders determine where these habitats and species are and identify appropriate boundaries for MPAs. These sites remain in UK waters after Brexit, and will continue to be protected under UK regulations.

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

Once a site has been designated, the law requires that the designated features within a site 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 species and habitats to be disturbed (see the designated sites system (DSS) of NE. In the marine environment, a Relevant Authority are bodies such as Harbour Authorities, Local Authorities, Water companies or the Environment Agency and Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities have local powers and functions that have a considerable bearing on how the marine environment is protected based on their understanding of local socio-economic needs and their local understanding of conservation advice, and the law.

The process through which the need for management is assessed for SACs and SPAs is known as an 'Appropriate Assessment'. It has a very strong level of precautionary protection built into its rules. Such an assessment would normally be carried out by a consultant on behalf of a developer who wanted to undertake a plan or project in (or near) an SAC or SPA. This process would consider the likely impact of the plan or project on the ecological integrity of the site, its protected features and typical species. The decision on whether to license an activity ultimately rests with the MMO (Marine Management Organisation) for recreational and major infrastructural developments.

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 the 10 English inshore 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 activities. This is an ongoing process to ensure that features in new MPAs will be managed if they are likely to be sensitive to fishing activities. MCZs, which were designated in three tranches (2013, 2016 and 2019) subsequent to SACs and SPAs are subject to a similar analysis of risk and threat from fishing, and are therefore subsumed into the same regional and local risk matrices by IFCAs.

Estuaries such as the Fal and Helford, Tamar, Humber and Severn, where there is 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. Such 'condition assessments' are meant to 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 using ecological observation, transects & camera traps. At sea, this is much more difficult since we don’t have the resources or technology to do this at fine scales of observation - or it is costly. Active intervention to artificially ‘create’ marine habitats is vastly expensive, and can only be undertaken in relatively shallow waters at present (e.g. saltmarsh, seagrass, dune habitats). In most instances and areas of MPAs we need to rely on habitats being protected from damaging human activities to recover themselves once the damage is stopped. The speed and nature of this recovery is inherently uncertain.

The use of the precautionary principle is particularly important for managing the marine environment; it essentially means that where you are not sure about what is happening, it is best to err on the side of protection and restriction. 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' in their target of achieving 'favourable conservation status'. 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 and published science in order to 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 guidelines in 2010 on the proportion of habitats (such as mud, sand and reef) and particular threatened species (such as ocean quahogs, seahorses and pink sea-fans) to ensure a full range of UK marine biodiversity is 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, and the MMO for a very few offshore sites. 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, and with social scientists, regulators, lawyers and academics produced a paper to illustrate the collective will to deliver a 'whole site approach' to achieving greater MPA performance.

The feature-based approach to management 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 expansive should buffer zones around features 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 & personal knowledge, rather than from data unambiguously stored on computers. There is still no comprehensive national 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. 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.

When we were part of the EU, offshore management measures were 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. From 2016 to 2018 the UK submitted a number of management recommendations for offshore English MCZs and SACs for consultation with other member states. 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 management 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. A subsequent report released in October 2020 to both the UK and EU by a collaboration of NGOs (including the MCS) has called for a total ban of all bottom towed fishing gear in the site that is pursuant to the law and current ecological evidence. The NGOs claim that this comprises the correct ecological questions that must be answered in any appropriate assessment to allow fishing in the site.

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 decision-making power lies within the committees that are advised by IFCA staff. They vote on new and updated regulations for the management of Marine Protected Areas and to set sustainable fishing limits in their districts. The MMO ‘balances’ the committee membership by recruiting from conservation and industry such that a range of views is given and represented.

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 (as part of a political target set by OSPAR). The resulting 'revised approach' to the policy of fishing in MPAs was facilitated by NGOs undertaking a legal campaign in 2012 against the MMO for licensing fishing vessels without consideration of the environmental impact of fishing in MPAs.

Management for all UK MPAs won't be achieved until well 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, society and fisheries alike. The 'Fisheries Act' that will come into play after Brexit may pave the way for 'climate' MPAs and 'sustainable fishing' in MPAs. This would increase and expand the role of spatial protection measures available to government and regulators, perhaps leading to a more efficient 'whole site' approach to MPA management.

Once sites are set up, a process of monitoring and reporting is currently required from sites every 6 years for SACs and MCZs in England. This is particularly difficult under current budgetary constraints with such a large MPA network (funding to IFCAs, NE and JNCC has not increased relative to the increased extent of our waters in MPAs). Some public/private partnership projects are helping in a handful of sites throughout the UK.

Most recent updates (October 2020)

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 meant that a total of 25% of UK waters was in the largely completed UK MPA network as of the end of 2019. In September 2020, Scottish Government designated the 'West of Scotland MPA' - the largest MPA in Europe measuring 107,718 km2, increasing the MPA coverage of UK waters to 36% (JNCC).

The network comprises 115 SACs, 112 SPAs, 97 MCZ (91 in England, 5 In Northern Ireland and one in Wales), and, following the addition of the 'West of Scotland' MPA, 32 Scottish nature conservation MPAs. In June 2019, Scotland launched a consultation on the potential designation of 4 further MPAs- but these have yet to be designated.

The 2019 tranche of 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. The 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 on the sites in summer 2019, enabling all sites to be designated.

In summer 2019 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). The review was published in summer 2020 recommending that sites be established for socio-economic and ecological reasons. There is no implementation plan currently set out by any devolved UK government to designate sites. An implementation plan by Welsh Government in 2012 to designate Highly Protected Marine Areas resulted in no sites being designated.

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 implications of leaving the EU also hangs over the potential for our offshore MPAs. Measures for MPAs can be implemented post-Brexit by UK governments. They could theoretically introduce HPMAs on a large scale. Such management considerations are likely to be balanced against potential tariffs that could be introduced by other member states that are currently negotiating continued access to UK 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 & reluctance to get regulations in place in offshore sites (outside 12nm) up until the end of 2020.

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 September 2020, of the current 66,507km2 of MPAs, only 4,811km2(7.2%) is permanently protected from all types of bottom towed fishing gears. Of England’s entire sea area (241,576km2), 4,811km2 is only 2%.