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Ensuring new Highly Protected Marine Areas are on the road to success

As Link launches a new briefing paper on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), Daniele Clifford, Marine Conservation Officer at The Wildlife Trusts, writes that these proposed sites should be designated by the end of this year and, if well designed, they will offer the highest level of environmental protection for our seas, banning all damaging activities across the sites to give nature the best chance of recovery.

February 2022

If you look out from the coast today and explore the waters beyond, you may see some wonderful marine wildlife, but it’s hard for anyone alive to imagine the abundant scenes that historic records reveal – seabed carpets made of a diversity of interwoven fauna, fish larger than people, marine mammals like harbour porpoises frequently seen in groups of tens and hundreds, and seabirds wheeling in such numbers the sky was filled with the colour of their wings.

Decades of overexploitation and pollution have damaged and depleted the wealth of wildlife once in our seas. Our seabed carpets have been torn apart, many fish are smaller and harder to come by, and numerous species that were once common are now rare, with far too many worryingly in decline. As our waters become increasingly crowded with the growth of renewables, our fragile wildlife is facing multiple pressures and our seas are in crisis as the Government has failed to meet targets to recover our waters.

Existing Marine Protected Areas are limited in their ability to restore nature as they only go as far as conserving the status quo of the select features for which they are designated. Therefore, we were pleased that last year the Government committed to a historic and much-needed new designation - Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) - and the designation of the first ‘pilot’ sites by the end of this year. This new designation will offer the highest level of environmental protection for our seas, banning all damaging activities across the sites to give nature the best chance of recovery.

It’s clear HPMAs are an opportunity to turn the tide. That’s why today, Link has published a briefing setting out the benefits HPMAs could provide, and the key principles that must be recognised to ensure HPMAs are on the road to success. While we appreciate the designation process is underway, we hope this paper serves as a reminder that these principles must not be forgotten in the critical decisions which remain.

Successful HPMAs could act as havens for wildlife away from human pressures, allowing us to see what true recovery at sea looks like and setting the bar against which other protected areas could be measured. They could help the UK achieve numerous objectives for wildlife, people and climate by enhancing biodiversity, re-stocking our seas and protecting habitats and species which store carbon.

However, to achieve these much-needed benefits, HPMAs must be delivered in the right manner. To ensure this new designation is a success for our seas, we are calling for HPMAs to be:

  • Appropriately selected and designated: The primary basis in which HPMA sites are selected must be based on science-led ecological and conservation evidence. They must be sufficient in size and number, encompassing a range of habitats (including blue carbon). HPMAs must take a whole-site approach, offering permanent protection to all wildlife and habitats within their boundaries, in order to contribute to the recovery of our seas and the Government’s commitments to 30x30 (protecting 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030). The positive benefits of HPMAs should be actively communicated.
  • Strongly protected: HPMAs must prohibit all extractive, destructive, and depositional uses and allow only non-damaging levels of other activities. Government must acknowledge displacement of activities in its decision making and put strategies in place to support marine users and avoid creating new problems by moving pressures to other locations.
  • Funded, managed and monitored: HPMAs must be backed with sufficient long-term funding. To achieve their main objective to allow full recovery of the marine environment and ecological processes, HPMAs must be managed and monitored to help us learn how our seas recover. A complete management and monitoring programme should be in place for each site from day one of designation.
  • Enforced: Defra and arms-length bodies should work with local communities and stakeholders, with early and transparent communication, to enhance support for HPMAs and compliance with restrictions. HPMAs should be marked on Admiralty charts to raise awareness of their locations and aid compliance. Staff and resources must be available to apply proportionate penalties that genuinely act as a deterrent to non-compliance.
  • Collaborative: With funding support, HPMAs could benefit from the development of collaborative monitoring surveys with the public and key stakeholders. This could achieve added benefits by aiding support for HPMAs and, for sites nearshore, provide social benefits.

These key principles must be adhered to throughout the shortlisting process and crucial decisions which remain. We have an opportunity to support our seas in recovering from our overexploitation, for the benefit of nature, people and climate, but to do this we must ensure HPMAs are on the road to success.

Read the full Link briefing, The Road to success for new Highly Protected Marine Areas here.

Daniele Clifford is the Marine Conservation Officer at The Wildlife Trusts, follow @WildlifeTrusts

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.