Government says yes to Highly Protected Marine Areas

The Wildlife Trusts cheer long fought-for arrival of first ever sea sanctuaries where all damaging activities will be banned

Last year, the Benyon review of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) was published by Defra. The Wildlife Trusts backed its recommendations that HPMAs should be an essential part of the UK network for protection and recovery of the marine environment, and that the government should introduce HPMAs as soon as possible.

Today, on World Oceans Day 2021, Defra has announced it will begin the process for designating HPMAs by the end of 2022, setting an ambitious commitment to protect our seas. The Wildlife Trusts believe there is an overwhelming case for the designation of HPMAs across our seas which would see a ban on all damaging activities, offering the strictest possible protections for the marine environment and giving nature the best chance of recovery.

The Wildlife Trusts have called for HPMAs for the last three years and launched a petition urging speedy implementation which was signed by over 10,000 people. Joan Edwards, director of policy and public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts was invited to be on the review panel.

Joan Edwards says:

“This new type of marine protection will be the gold standard for rewilding parts of the sea. It’s a fantastic step-forward, one which The Wildlife Trusts and over 10,000 of our supporters have been waiting for – we’re absolutely delighted!

“The removal of all harmful activities – from fishing and trawling to construction – has never been attempted in UK waters before. This is an historic moment and we’re certain that HPMAs will help our seas become healthier and that degraded underwater habitats will be better able to recover.

“This special form of protection is vitally needed. Decades of overexploitation and pollution have left our precious seas damaged and the wealth of wildlife that once lived there is much diminished. It is hard for us to imagine the abundant scenes that historic records reveal, with dolphins, whales and seabirds as far as the eye can see and huge numbers of fish which were far bigger than you see today.

“Existing Marine Protected Areas are limited in their ability to restore nature as they only go as far as conserving its current, sometimes damaged state. HPMAs will allow us to see what truly recovering seas look like. They will set a new bar against which other protected areas could be measured.”

Following today’s announcement, The Wildlife Trusts will be participating in the Government’s consultation process: we believe HPMAs should be designated in each regional sea, in inshore, nearshore and offshore English waters, encompassing a range of habitats so that experts can study how different ecosystems recover when pressures are reduced.

Tim Ferrero, Senior Specialist - Marine Conservation for Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust says:

"Today’s announcement is a long-awaited landmark for marine conservation. Fully implemented Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) will enable areas of our seas to recover in conditions as close to natural as we can currently achieve. Our seas have been under so many pressures for so long, that no living person can truly appreciate quite how diverse and productive they once were. We cannot predict quite how nature will recover within an HPMA, although we do know that change can be rapid and significant when we manage harmful activities effectively.

Our vision for nature’s recovery includes creating a Wilder Solent. We have wonderful marine species and habitats right here on our doorstep, including mantis shrimps, native oysters, and internationally important seagrass meadows. By creating HPMAs, we can support wildlife in our local waters and promote increased biodiversity and productivity throughout our seas.

The creation of HPMAs marks the beginning of an exciting journey toward a healthier future for our seas with more diversity, higher productivity, and greater resilience to change. But we also must tackle remaining pressures, like water quality, which place extra pressure on the marine environment even when harmful activities are well-managed."

In order for HPMAs to be effective, The Wildlife Trusts are calling for:

  • HPMAs to be a whole-site approach, protecting all the wildlife and habitats within their boundaries with effective management measures
  • HPMAs should be sufficient in size and number, and well monitored to understand what happens when damaging activities are removed and how our seas can recover
  • This will also help us determine appropriate management measures for the rest of the Marine Protected Area network
  • HPMAs must provide a higher level of protection than other types of protected area, allowing marine areas to return to as natural a state as possible, with more wildlife

The designation of HPMAs will act as a mechanism for recovery and should contribute significantly to the Government’s commitment to protecting 30% of our seas by 2030. HPMAs will also act as a natural solution to help store carbon and tackle climate change, as well as generating benefits through tourism, recreation and marine education.

Joan Edwards continues:

“HPMAs will allow wildlife and habitats to be conserved on a large scale. This will have multiple benefits such as increasing the number, diversity and size of fish, as well as enabling the ‘spill-over’ of species to other areas, helping to restock our depleted waters and benefit commercial fisheries. HPMAs will provide space for nature and wonderful places where people can experience rejuvenated marine life.

“We know HPMAs will work. When bottom trawling was banned from Lyme Bay in 2008, we saw the astonishing recovery of beautiful sunset corals and pink sea fans within just a few years. When fishing was banned off Lundy, fisheries benefited from increased lobsters and tourism boomed following positive marine publicity.”