Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) are the Government’s flagship reform for improving the marine environment. Indeed, in the recent Environmental Improvement Plan, the Government highlighted its ambition to “create Highly Protected Marine Areas to allow sites to fully recover” as one of the “key policies that will deliver our apex biodiversity target”.
The desperate need for stronger marine protections has been highlighted in the recent ecological collapses in the North East of England’s seas, where the highly degraded nature of the marine environment meant that additional stresses caused die offs of entire populations; devastating both nature and the local fishing sector.
Lord Benyon concluded in his 2020 HPMA review that this new designation would go further than existing MPAs, which safeguard specific features or habitats within their boundaries, by taking a ‘whole site approach’ and by only permitting activities which have very little or no impact within them, such as vessel transit, kayaking and scuba diving.
We need a network of HPMAs to help restore our seas. They would allow ecological processes to recover and re-establish themselves, providing a benchmark against which to assess progress of other marine protections across our seas and contributing to the urgent objectives of halting species decline and addressing the climate crisis.
However, nearly four years on from the start of the Benyon Review, which began developing the HPMA concept, not a single site has been designated. While three sites are set for designation this summer, this is a hugely disappointing drop in ambition and falls short of the five pilot sites deemed the ‘bare minimum’ by Lord Benyon in his final report.
The programme has faced challenges in designating its initial sites which resulted in two proposed sites not being taken forward for designation. Most notable has been the backlash against the proposed Lindisfarne HPMA off the coast of Northumberland. The designation of this site wasn't helped by poor data on local fishing activities provided by Defra, which angered the local community. Media coverage highlighted a sense of anger over the proposed restrictions on fishers’ livelihoods which was seen by some as being imposed by a distant bureaucracy. The proposed site at Inner Silver Pit South was also dropped after minor industry opposition.
So, with Ministers now committed to “explore additional sites this year” and with “any future sites also subject to consultation”, this is the perfect time to assess how the programme can better deliver on its goals and avoid repeating past mistakes. For the next round of sites we recommend that Defra:
The environment sector has strongly supported HPMAs throughout their development, with thousands of supporters backing the plans for new sites. With this programme having delivered only 3 sites since the start of the review process in 2019, and with only around 8% of England’s waters currently effectively protected for nature, it is vital that this key policy evolves at speed. This requires support for site designations as part of a wider, cohesive network of properly managed sites which can deliver in fulfilling the UK’s marine 30x30 ambition (with HPMAs covering an absolute minimum of 10% of our seas) - over the coming months and years.
Kirsten Carter is the Wildlife and Countryside Link Marine Group Chair and Principal Policy Officer (Marine) at RSPB.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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