The UK Government has announced the creation of three new Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) in English waters by 6 July of this year.
Announced this week by the UK Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey, the protections are intended to enable recovery of wild habitats and species by removing all harmful activities including fishing, construction and dredging.
The sites in question are Allonby Bay in the Irish Sea, Dolphin Head in the Eastern Channel and North East of Farnes Deep in the North Sea. All three were chosen for their ecological importance, including their status as “blue carbon” habitats, or as feeding and nursery grounds for commercially-important species such as cod and herring.
“Highly Protected Marine Areas are a vital step forward in enabling our ecosystems to thrive, increasing climate resilience and ensuring we have a healthy and productive marine environment for generations to come,” said Coffey in her announcement.
“The first three Highly Protected Marine Areas include inshore and offshore sites and will complement the existing network of Marine Protected Areas covering 40% of English waters.”
The move is part of the UK’s plan to protect at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030, said UK Marine Minister Richard Benyon. “Allonby Bay contains ‘blue carbon’ habitats that capture and store carbon. The site also contains honeycomb reefs and blue mussel beds which can provide water purification and important protection from coastal erosion. Nursery and spawning habitats for a range of commercial species including cod, plaice, sole and herring will also be protected.”
Number of sites “not enough”, say conservationists
However, some say three HPMAs are not enough to achieve the UK’s stated goals. “Three is better than none, and it is still amazing that we will be making history in designating highly protected sites for the first time. But it’s nothing like enough,” said Dr Lissa Batey, head of marine conservation at The Wildlife Trusts.
“The government came up with a longlist of over thirty important places that deserve the highest protection and whittled it down to five precious places. Now we discover that only three have made the cut and the long term health of our seas has been sacrificed to the short term interests of the fishing industry – even though the industry has the most to gain from the spillover benefits of HPMAs of increased crab, lobster and other commercial species,” she added.
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt of the Marine Conservation Society said, “The UK Government cannot continue to underachieve and must show much greater ambition and initiative to build a network of HPMAs – or no take zones – covering at least 10% of English seas by 2030 to allow our seas to thrive.”
An earlier UK government report on HPMAs recommended five sites as the “bare minimum” needed to assess the effectiveness of the increased protections. Five sites were originally mooted for HPMA designation back in 2021, including including the coast of Lindisfarne in Northumberland.
However, these additional sites were ultimately rejected on socio-economic grounds, with the impact for local fishing communities a particular concern. In the Northumberland area, these are mainly composed of small-scale crab and lobster pot fishers, the only type of fishing activity permitted in the already protected marine area.