What is a Marine Protected Area?
Do you believe that all marine species are protected from human interference in Marine Protected Areas?
If you do, sadly, the likelihood is that you’d be wrong.
In a 2010 survey , respondents, on average, thought that 11% of the UK’s waters were highly protected. It’s actually less than 1%. Quite a lot less.
If they don’t protect everything, what do they do? Well, that’s where it gets complicated. Here, I’ll try to untangle some of the things you should know about Marine Protected Areas (MPA) without boring you to tears. I’ll try to get to the bottom of exactly what they are – without the vast swathe of details, exceptions and complications. And believe me, it does get complicated!
These are the subjects I’m going to discuss in this article – I’ll try to be concise:
- What is a Marine Protected Area?
- Why are Marine Protected Areas important?
- Where are the UK’s Marine Protected Areas?
- What types of fishing are restricted in which MPAs?
- What is a No Take Zone?
- Where are the UK No Take Zones and how big are they?
- How much of the UK’s waters are protected?
- Are Marine Protected Areas Effective?
- Who protects Marine Protected Areas and what can you do if you need to report something?
- What is the future of Marine Protect Areas in the UK?
Why are Marine Protected Areas important?
The main problem is overfishing.
By some measures, we have managed to reduced the amount of fish within the UK’s seas to less than 10% of their pre-industrial levels . As of 2020, 60% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, leaving no room for our ever-expanding global population, and 33% are over-exploited .
The primary aim of a Marine Protected Area is to protect both the marine species and the marine habitats. This doesn’t explicitly mean that there can be no human activity, but it is implied that fishing should be done in a sustainable way and biodiversity should be maintained.
Beyond that, “Marine Protected Area” is, essentially, a term that refers to a variety of types of sites that are related, in some way, to the conservation of the marine environment. These could be offshore, inshore or even wetlands. They may try to protect cod in the North Sea, or areas of corals off the Cornwall coast.
Around the UK, “Marine Protected Area” is a catch-all phrase that encompasses the following specific types of protected area: “Special Protection Areas (SPA) with marine component”, “Special Area of Conservation (SAC) with marine component”, “Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)”, “Ramsar” sites (wetlands), “European Marine Sites” (a collective term for both SAC and SPAs), “Natura 2000” sites (another, but different, collective term for SAC and SPA sites) and “Marine Conservation Zones” (MCZ).
It should also be noted that in addition to the above, there are “Scottish Marine Protected Areas”, “Jersey Marine Protected Areas” and “Isle of Man Marine Nature Reserves”, all of which are maintained by their respective governments. I don’t know how they differ from the aforementioned MPAs, other than they are governed by different governments, but I’m sure they do… somehow.
Are you still with me? Okay, so for each Marine Protected Area, regardless of type, there are any number of stakeholders – organisations that have an interest in operating or restricting operations within that area. If I take just one MPA, this is the list of lead regulators responsible for various aspects of that Marine Conservation Zone: The Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, the Marine Management Organisation, the Environment Agency, the Department for Business and Energy, the Oil and Gas Authority, the harbour and local planning authorities, the Department for Transport, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Natural England and the Planning Inspectorate. Ever wondered why you pay so much tax?
If you’re feeling a little bewildered, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’m not normally surprised by the level of complexity the public sector can impose on itself, but this really does seem very complicated. At this point, I need to assure you that I’m not going to try to explain what all these different zones are and what each stakeholder is responsible for – there’s a good chance that even they don’t know, and life is too short.
Out of necessity, I’m going to split MPAs into two types: the first is where some types of fishing are restricted and the second is where all types of fishing are disallowed. This is a gross over-simplification, but one that is necessary so that you’ll keep reading and understand at least a little about MPAs… I believe that everyone needs to know about marine protected areas – their success, or failure, has global implications for the whole of humanity – I kid you not!
Where are the UK’s Marine Protected Areas?
The easiest way to answer this question is with a map. But, as you may already realise, this MPA thing is complicated… as are the maps. Fortunately, there is a great interactive map created by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The JNCC are the public body that advises the UK government on nature conservation. The map enables you turn on and off the various different types of MPA, the species and habitats protected, the administrative areas, etc. Above is a screen shot that, I believe, gives you a good oversight of the area that we have ‘control’ over (the UK continental shelf) when it comes to MPAs.
My screen shot gives you an idea of ‘some’ of the protected areas, but I recommend visiting the JNCC’s interactive map, where you can click in any of the given areas to see exactly what is protected in that Marine Protected Area. It would have been good if they had also included what human activities were banned in each area.
Please note that whilst there are some very large conservation zones in the UK’s overseas territories, for the sake of simplicity, I’m sticking with the MPAs around the UK. A good resource for more information on the overseas territories is the Great British Oceans project.
What types of fishing are restricted in which MPAs?
This wasn’t easy to find out. There’s plenty of information about the locations of the UK’s Marine Protected Areas, the species and habitats that are protected, but I was struggling to find out what this actually means in terms of banned fishing practices.
This information may also be hard to source, even for those working in the fishing industry, as a service has been setup called the Seafish Kingfisher Information Service. This aims “to provide a consolidated and simplified gear focused view of all current commercial fishing restrictions in UK waters in a format which is easy to understand and can be used with confidence”. Great stuff.
Using the map, I was keen to determine where bottom dredging was restricted – this is a particular bugbear of mine due to the ecological and environmental damage it can cause. I was surprised to see just how much of the coast is highlighted as being restricted for bottom dredging purposes – in fact, much of the English and Welsh inshore coast (within 6 miles) is highlighted.
Why was I surprised? Well, mainly because I’ve dived a number of those areas where the evidence of recent bottom dredging has been plain to see. Delving further into the detail, it seems that some of these highlighted areas may, for example, only have restrictions at certain times of year. There are also statements such as “permits may be required…”.
According to the Marine Conservation Society, 98% of the UK’s offshore waters are bottom trawled and only 5% are protected in inshore waters.
Once again, finding which parts of our coastline have permanent restrictions is not straightforward. The Kingfisher interactive map is a great place to start. For the ultimate answer, however, this map should be used alongside the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority’s byelaws. Only then will you get an accurate picture of what is allowed, where and when. Good luck.
What is a No Take Zone?
We now know that there are multiple types of Marine Protected Area and within each type there are varying levels of restriction on what activities can be carried out. We know where these MPAs are, and we know how to find out what types of species or habitats are protected. We also know that, with an amount of “online dredging”, we can workout what types of fishing are restricted, or banned, in what areas and at which times.
Marine Protected Areas that are declared as “No Take Zones” should be simpler. The clue is in the title – if it says “No Take Zone”, then surely there are no fishing activities? Implicitly, this seems to be the case according to numerous sources. The only explicit definition I found, however, was on the now defunct marinebiodiversity.org website. They stated that “A No Take Zone (NTZ) is a Marine Protected Area (MPA) permanently set aside from direct human disturbance, where all methods of fishing and extraction of natural materials, dumping, dredging or construction activities are prohibited, from which the removal of any resources, living or dead is prohibited”. Assumptions can be dangerous, but it should be safe to assume that if it’s called a ‘no take zone’, then you’re not allowed to take anything.
Where are the UK No Take Zones and how big are they?
I can tell you, with some level of certainty, that at the time of writing there are 4 no-take zones around the UK: Arran (2.67 square kilometres), the Medway Estuary (12.1 sq km), Flamborough Head (1 sq km), Lundy island (4 sq km).
I think it’s worth highlighting a couple of headline figures: the UK’s territorial waters (up to 12 nautical miles from the coastline) has an area of 163,302 square kilometres (sq km) and its offshore waters have an area of 722,128 sq km. That’s a total of over 885,000 sq km. Out of that rather vast expanse of water, the total area of no-take zones is 19.8 sq km. That is 0.0022%. Useful.
How much of the UK’s waters are protected?
Now, if we look at the total area of all the different types of Marine Protected Areas, then the figures are a quite impressive 38% – that’s 38% of all our waters that are part of an MPA. But what exactly is being protected in these areas? All I can tell you is that in each of these MPAs, one or more species or habitats are protected – again, the detail can be found on the JNCC’s interactive map. This means that some types of human activities are restricted, but not all… unless you happen to be in one of the four very, very small No Take Zones.
Are Marine Protected Areas Effective?
So, the MPAs are useful, right? Well, the science suggests that they are somewhat effective at protecting the protected species in the MPAs. However, this is not the easiest of questions to answer, not least because MPAs mean different things to different people.
The term “Marine Protected Area” is less specific than you might imagine. For example, the territorial waters of most developed nations, have fishing quotas  – does this mean that all of their territorial waters are, in fact, an MPA? I suspect that we’d hope for something a bit more… well… protected, than that?
Over the last decade, in an effort to protect more of our marine environment, MPA networks around the UK have been hastily developed in order to meet targets such as those set out in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity . However, the speed of development has sometimes resulted in accusations that these MPAs are “paper parks” with little or no effective protection for the marine environment .
At the other extreme, No Take Zones disallow any human activity whatsoever. As such, asking whether MPAs are effective is hard to answer as the level of protection varies greatly – they may be more, or less, effective depending on what it is they are trying to protect. That being given, I will try to address the different categories and come to an answer from there.
The marine environment is under threat from numerous angles  – pollution (chemical and acoustic), ocean warming, ocean acidification, oil or mineral extraction, the laying of pipes and cables, and fishing, either from the water column or from the seabed. MPAs are ineffective at preventing the first three of these items. For example, there is no place on earth that hasn’t been ‘infected’ by microplastics  and an oil spill, drifting for hundreds of kilometres, doesn’t respect the borders of an MPA.
MPAs can be effective, however, in stopping manmade activities, whether that is extracting something from beneath the seabed, or laying something down on it. How effective tends to depend on economic factors – we’ve seen how a government can make big environmental claims and then later backtrack because there is a buck or two to be made.
In this article, we are really focussing on fishing: How effective are MPAs at protecting marine habitats and/or maintaining/increasing marine wildlife stocks?
Even with a tighter definition for our question, it seems that the jury is still out . Here’s the crux of the problem: when you close off an area from a fishing activity, you don’t actually reduce the efforts made by those going fishing, you simply displace it: the amount of fishing that is being done outside the MPA increases. Within the MPA, fish stocks may go up, but outside the MPA fish stocks probably go down… I say “probably” as there is some debate about this.
On the one hand, the argument is that the increase in fish stock within the MPA spills out to the wider region and the total amount of fish goes up… but the intensity of fishing in the wider region also goes up. It is not clear whether there is a net increase in fish stocks or whether they stay the same or even go down. Research is ongoing.
The answer to the question may also be “yes” and “no”. You see, some fish spend most of their lives in one particular area. Intuitively, it makes sense that restricting fishing will increase the chance of these fish living a longer life and replenishing the area with their young and this does seem to be the case. However, other types of fish are highly migratory. One study suggested that closing off 25% of the North Sea, for instance, wouldn’t have a major impact on the numbers of Cod – if they couldn’t be fished in one area, they’d be fished in another area as they migrated through it .
What does seem to be the case is that the performance of strongly protected, or strict no-take MPAs, increases the general fish stocks as well as biodiversity within their boundaries . A recent study found that some species in the Arran No Take Zone had increased by nearly 400% since its inception . Interestingly, a study carried out in 2017  found that the effectiveness of MPAs around the world was actually dependent on how well staffed and financially supported the MPA was – that wasn’t something I was expecting to read!
So, the short answer to the question is that it is unclear how effective MPAs are when looking at regional fish stocks, but within strongly protected and well managed MPAs, stocks are higher and biodiversity is wider.
Who protects Marine Protected Areas and what can you do if you need to report something?
Given all the above, I think we can agree that our MPAs need protection. But whose responsibility is it?
This unenviable task falls to the Royal Navy’s Overseas Patrol Squadron. This squadron consists of four River-class offshore patrol vessels and a helicopter [Interestingly, their website quotes a patrol area of 80,000 square miles. The EEZ is just about 300,000 square miles… anyone want to tell them that they’ve got another 220,000 square miles to do? 😉]. Seriously though, I’m sure their job is helped with modern day technology and a highly professional team.
However, we do know that illegal fishing is regularly carried out in our MPAs . That being the case, tightening the rules on MPAs will do no good if the rules are being ignored.
If you are aware of any suspicious marine activity, fishing or other, then this should be reported to the Marine Management Organisation. If the fishing is in inland waterways, then the environment agency should be contacted.
What is the future of Marine Protect Areas in the UK?
The purpose of the UK’s Marine Management Organisation (MMO) is to “protect and enhance our precious marine environment and support UK economic growth by enabling sustainable marine activities and development”. They’ve been working towards that end since 2010, and in 2020 they published their vision for the next ten years . Whilst this document is strategic in scope, and hence short on detail, it does acknowledge the “30 by 30” – the aim to protect 30% of the world’s seas by 2030.
However, with a big question mark over the effectiveness of some of our existing MPAs, in June 2019 the government asked for a review to examine whether there was a need for marine protected areas with a much higher level of protection. The report  concludes that Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMA) are an essential addition to the network of our other marine protected areas.
The recommendations of the report, amongst other things, is that the HPMAs should “prohibit extractive, destructive and depositional uses and allow only non-damaging levels of other activities”. I’m sure, in due course, there will be a finalised definition of what constitutes “non-damaging” activities. As long as this is sensibly defined, it represents a step in the right direction.
Sites will be proposed based on an assessment of the ecological importance, sensitivity and potential to recover, as well as things such as its importance for long term carbon storage. Stakeholders will make their proposals to DEFRA by September 2022, with the aim of assigning where the pilot HPMAs will be by the end of the year.
The effectiveness of the HPMAs will have to be evaluated before they get a wider roll out. How that will be done and over what time scale is unclear, as is how much of our waters will ultimately become HPMAs – more than the 20 square kilometres of No Take Zones we currently have, I hope!
At the beginning of this article, I asked “what is a Marine Protected Area”? It is a catch-all term that covers different types of area where there is an attempt at some level of marine conservation. This may, or may not, include restricting fishing activities. This simple answer, however, hides a more complex and somewhat ambiguous method of protecting the marine environment.
There are many MPAs around the world where the stated conservation aims are being achieved, but there are also plenty where they are not . Whether the MPA is successful depends not only on its aim but also on how well it is policed and how well it is managed.
In the UK, the number of types of MPA and the responsible stakeholders is overly complex. The area of sea that is designated as a No Take Zone is too small to effectively protect marine biodiversity, particularly from the effects of bottom trawling. Illegal fishing is occurring within UK waters, and to this end, any level of protection is useless unless people stick to the rules, or it is effectively policed.
Whilst I have bemoaned the distinct lack of no take zones around the UK, the primary aims of Marine Protected Areas are to stop unsustainable fishing (not stop fishing altogether) and to stop the collapse of marine biodiversity. A complete understanding of how effective MPAs are, is still the subject of research, but currently, they represent the best and only mechanism to fight the undisputable crash of the marine eco-system.
The proposed HPMAs offer hope that we may get some significant areas that are fully protected. That is, protected in the way most people imagine exists already in our MPA network. However, how long it will be before they are in place and how extensive these sites will be, will only become apparent in time. Making these changes may adversely affect the fishing industry… or it may actually help it. Doing nothing, however, will adversely affect everyone.
Wow, that was a marathon – if you’re reading this, well done for getting to the end! It’s such a big and diverse subject, I hope I did it at least some justice.
Originally, the article was twice the size – much too long for a blog. I didn’t touch on bottom trawling or how MPAs may be able to directly help with climate change. I hope to put them into their own blogs further down the line.
If you have any thoughts, think I’ve missed something or, God forbid, I’ve made a mistake, please do comment at the bottom.
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