Highly Protected Marine Areas: Time for action, not more words

Our Principle Specialist in Marine Protected Areas, Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, shares his thoughts on Monday’s launch of the Benyon Review into Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), which recommends that HPMAs should be designated in English waters with urgency.

The word ‘urgency’ is crucial here. As, while I welcome the recommendations of the report, the Government must now act fast to implement them and be ambitious in its approach. We don’t need any more reviews – we now need urgent action.

HPMAs, also known as No-Take Zones, Reference Areas or Marine Reserves, have been repeatedly proven to be the ‘gold standard’ of Marine Protected Areas. We - and many international marine scientists - have been calling for them for decades. They are vital in our fight to help our ocean recover.

As long as they are big enough and properly enforced, HPMAs will result in increased biodiversity, abundance and a healthier seabed. Not only does this benefit commercial fisheries through the spill-over effect, but HPMAs can fully protect key ‘blue carbon’ marine and coastal habitats, such as deep and shallow muddy seabeds, seagrass and saltmarsh, that lock down our carbon emissions and help us reach net-zero carbon targets.

As a species we have about a decade left to change the way we live in order to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown. We need all the help we can get, and HPMAs are part of the solution.

So, what needs to happen next? We want to see tangible action in delivering HPMAs by World Oceans Day 2021:

• Defra must urgently produce an HPMA action plan with a clear timetable for implementation

• This plan must deliver at least 30 HPMAs that are not less than 100km square in size each and in both coastal and offshore waters

• The roll-out of HPMAs must be accompanied by sufficient monitoring and enforcement (a requirement within the Fisheries Bill for fishing vessels to be fitted with Remote Electronic Monitoring equipment would be a significant step forward)

Personally, over the last 15 years I have invested a lot of my professional time and energy pushing Government for a well-managed network of Marine Protected Areas that includes HPMAs.

Yet despite multiple campaigns highlighting the public support for these protected areas and despite stakeholder groups around the coast of England, with fishermen, anglers, marine industry reps, NGOs and other groups dedicating thousands of hours between 2010 and 2012 to eventually recommend 127 MCZs and 65 Reference Areas (I.e. HPMAs), to date only four areas in our waters could be classed as HMPAs – but only thanks to the work of local groups who look after them.

We now have 355 MPAs of various designations in UK waters, but actual ‘protection’ of marine life within these is highly variable. Only 5% of UK MPAs fully exclude all forms of bottom towed fishing gears. Indeed, not one MPA outside 12 nautical miles is protected from fishing of any kind, largely thanks to the complexities of the EU Common Fisheries Policy, and the national politics of fishing. That may change post-Brexit, and we will of course continue to lobby for positive change within the new governance of our seas.

Inshore, things have been better. Fisheries regulations were finally introduced in 2014 in England that reduce, but don’t eliminate, some damaging fishing within some MPA boundaries. In addition, inappropriate developments by big business are also sometimes mitigated or curtailed.

But areas that prohibit all fishing, dumping, mining, dredging and other activities that trash the seabed (I.e. Highly Protected MPAs)? Well, currently there’s almost nothing. In 885,000km square of domestic UK seas, and 355 MPAs of all kinds, only four small sites covering about 20km2 are closed off to all these activities.

The 5,000 MCS supporters who rallied behind the ‘Make Highly Protected Marine Areas Happen’ flash-campaign late last year, urging Benyon’s Review to be bold and ambitious, fully understand this, and after the launch of yesterday’s review, we hope Defra do too.

The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, and the Benyon Review both also mention the ‘whole-site approach’ to managing MPAs, whereby all damaging activity is prohibited from within MPA boundaries – so they are talking the talk, but they are yet to walk the walk.

Indeed, Westminster Government is calling for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected in MPAs by 2030 - but MPA ‘designation’ is not enough – we need HPMAs that give proper protection to, and support recovery of, our marine ecosystems.

So, while yesterday’s report gives another recommendation for urgent protection for our seas and that recommendation is welcome – it means nothing without action. After all these years there cannot be any more dither or delay – the Government now must grasp the nettle and JUST GET ON WITH IT!