Expert review backs Marine Conservation Society call for gold-standard protection of UK seas

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Marine charity welcomes the Benyon Review and calls for a suite of Highly Protected Marine Areas to be designated in English seas within a year, after decades of Government stalling.

The Marine Conservation Society has welcomed the publication of the Benyon Review into Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), but warns that another Government report is not enough, and that positive action to recover our seas is urgently needed within 12 months. The review received more than 5,000 responses from the charity’s supporters, who have been calling for the establishment of HPMAs for decades.

HPMAs are ’gold standard’ zones which should offer the best protection for our ocean, banning damaging activities that have decimated wildlife and habitats. They are considered by marine biologists around the world as the most effective mechanism to restore degraded marine ecosystems and recover marine wildlife populations.

The Review, conducted over the past year by a panel of experts, involved consultation with the Marine Conservation Society, other non-government organisations and maritime interests, alongside a public consultation. The Review report calls for the designation of HPMAs in English seas to protect marine biodiversity and important ‘blue carbon’ habitats.

Just like nature reserves and national parks on land, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are set up to look after particular seascapes, habitats and species. Of the 355 MPAs in UK seas, only four are fully protected from all extractive activities, covering less than 20km2. All other UK MPAs allow some extractive or damaging activities (e.g. fishing, aggregate extraction, angling etc.) within their boundaries.

The Review recommends that some existing MPAs should be considered for upgrading to HPMA status. This means protection will go a step further for these MPAs by taking a ‘whole-site approach’ to protection, excluding all damaging activities across the site. The Review also recommends that ‘blue carbon’ habitats are identified for HPMA designation, recognising the incredible power of the UK’s marine and coastal habitats such as seabed, seagrass, and saltmarsh to lock down atmospheric CO2 and help combat climate change.

The Marine Conservation Society urges the Government to act swiftly on the review and properly invest in the work to get designations in place by World Oceans Day 2021, at the latest.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist Marine Protected Areas recalled: “The UK government had an important opportunity to designate 65 HPMA sites in English waters back in 2013, but failed to do so, citing a ‘lack of evidence’ and bowing to pressure from industry and fishing lobbyists. As a result, key seabed habitats continue to be damaged and the health of our seas declines. This Review is promising, but means nothing if Government – after decades of delay – doesn’t at last grasp the nettle and get these essential management measures in place with urgency

Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery said: “We welcome the conclusions of the Review, which support our long-held view that HPMAs should be introduced in UK waters, and the wishes of thousands of our supporters who also want to see real protection for our marine wildlife and habitats now. The Government has a historic opportunity to make much-needed changes to the way we protect our seas and just needs to get on with it! We have less than 10 years to take action to reduce the worst effects of climate change. Work now to establish a blue-belt of climate-smart HPMAs in our seas will lock down ‘blue carbon’ and help meet our net zero-carbon targets. MCS will use the findings of this Review to push Government to designate HPMAs in English waters within a year.”

Creating HPMAs in the UK’s waters will help return parts of our ocean to the most natural state possible. The Westminster Government has rightly supported extensive HPMA designations in our UK Overseas Territories, but not in the UK’s heavily-used domestic waters. By delivering the recommendations of this Review, the UK can start addressing the apparent imbalance of this approach and make a real difference to the future of our ocean.

For more information on Marine Protected Areas, HPMAs and the Marine Conservation Society’s work to assure healthy seas for the future, please visit www.mcsuk.org.

To read the full Benyon Review on HPMAs, visit here.

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown are a husband and wife team of underwater photographers. Both have degrees in environmental biology from Manchester University, with Caroline also having a masters in animal behaviour. Nick is a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in underwater wildlife photography and he also has a masters in teaching. They are passionate about marine conservation and hope that their images can inspire people to look after the world's seas and oceans. Their Manchester-based company, Frogfish Photography, offers a wide range of services and advice. They offer tuition with their own tailor made course - the Complete Underwater Photography Award. The modules of the course have been written to complement the corresponding chapters in Nick's own book: Underwater Photography Art and Techniques. They also offer equipment sales and underwater photography trips in the UK and abroad. For more information visit www.frogfishphotography.com.

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