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Marine Protected Areas and Highly Protected Marine Areas

POSTnote summarising the network of Marine Protected Areas and its components, and the designation of Highly Protected Marine Areas in English inshore and offshore waters.

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Marine ecosystems in the UK are being degraded by human activities. England has national and international commitments to protect the marine environment.

English Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are clearly defined geographical marine areas that aim to achieve long-term nature conservation by alleviating pressure from human activities. They are currently multi-use sites that only seek to protect certain features within each site. Other species and habitats within an MPA are not directly protected. NGO’s and academics are calling for a whole site approach to protection where activities which damage protected features are prohibited across the whole of the MPA and not only where protected features occur.

Following on from the Benyon Review (2020), the first Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) will be designated in English waters in 2023. HPMAs aim to prohibit all “extractive, destructive and depositional” human activities within a site boundary and will allow full recovery of a site. Three HPMAs will be designated in English waters in 2023.

Potentially damaging activities are not automatically prohibited when an MPA is designated and instead are considered on a case-by-case basis, for some activities this can mean there is a time lag between designation and implementation of management measures. Following EU-exit and establishment of the Fisheries Act (2020) England now has the power to ban fishing for conservation reasons in its offshore MPAs.  Monitoring in MPAs is limited by Government budget constraints, this makes adaptive management in response to changing conditions challenging, and reduces confidence in management interventions. 

Key Points

  • Healthy marine ecosystems provide benefits for human wellbeing. The Government estimate maritime activities contribute £47 billion annually to the economy. 
  • A Defra 2018 assessment found UK marine ecosystems did not meet Good Environmental Status (GES) requirements for 11 of 15 indicators. 
  • English Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are clearly defined geographical marine areas that aim to achieve long-term nature conservation by alleviating pressure from human activities. 
  • English MPAs are currently multi use sites that only seek to protect certain features within each site. 
  • Other species and habitats within an MPA are not directly protected. 
  • English Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) aim to protect all species, habitats, and associated ecosystem processes within a site boundary.  
  • Three HPMAs will be designated in English waters in 2023. 
  • Evidence indicates stakeholder engagement is a significant factor in success; MPAs which do not have support from local communities tend to fail in their conservation goals. 
  • Climate change is not directly considered in the design and management of the English MPA network but will affect its future effectiveness. 


POST is grateful to Hazel Cooley for researching this briefing and to all contributors and reviewers. For further information on this subject, please contact the co-author, Dr Jonathan Wentworth. 

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer-reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Members of the POST board* 

Dr Jen Ashworth, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 

Robert Clark, Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities 

Daniele Clifford, The Wildlife Trusts* 

Mike Cohen, National Federation of Fisherman’s Organisations* 

Dr Sarah Coulthard, Newcastle University 

Barrie Deas, National Federation of Fisherman’s Organisations 

Dr Mark Duffy, Natural England 

Dr Bob Earll, Environmental Consultant 

Nicholas Greenwood, Marine Management Organisation* 

Professor Jason Hall-Spencer, University of Plymouth 

Richard Hill, Marine Conservation Society* 

Dr Keith Hiscock, Marine Biological Association* 

Dr Charlotte Hopkins, University of Hull* 

Professor Kerry Howell, University of Plymouth 

David Jarrad, Shellfish Association of Great Britain 

Professor Peter Jones, University College London* 

John Lang, Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult 

Paul Leonard, Environmental Consultant* 

Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, University of Plymouth* 

Professor Susan Owens, University of Cambridge 

Jerry Percy, New Under Ten Fisherman’s Association 

Professor Margherita Pieraccini, University of Bristol* 

Dr Eunice Pinn, Seafish* 

Jo Pollet, Marine Stewardship Council 

Dr Ana Queirós, Plymouth Marine Laboratory 

Dr Sian Rees, University of Plymouth* 

Hannah Rudd, The Angling Trust 

Professor Daniela Schmidt, University of Bristol* 

Dr Michaela Schratzberger, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science* 

Dr Emma Sheehan, University of Plymouth 

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Marine Conservation Society* 

Dr Bryce Stewart, University of York 

Jacques Villemot, RSPB* 

Dr Caroline Whalley, Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult* 

*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.


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