The beach of Allonby Bay, with grass and dark sand in the foreground and the sea in the distance

Allonby Bay is one of the first three Highly Protected Marine Areas. Image © MNStudio/Shutterstock

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UK creates three new 'highly protected' marine nature reserves in England

Three underwater nature reserves are set to be established around the coast of England.

While conservationists have welcomed the announcement by the UK Government, they've also raised concerns that the proposals aren't enough to protect vulnerable marine habitats.

Three stretches of seabed around England are set to receive the highest level of protection under UK law.

Fishing, dredging and construction are among the activities which will be banned in these Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs). Protecting these areas will allow animals such as dolphins, fish and undersea worms to thrive as their habitat recovers.

It is hoped that the pilot HPMAs will be the first of many to be designated in the coming decade, following pledges made at COP15 to protect 30% of the world's surface.

Marine minister Lord Benyon, who recommended the creation of HPMAs, says, 'This is a crucial next step to aid marine ecosystem recovery in our waters and I'm delighted to see my recommendations become a reality today.'

'Not only will the first of these Highly Protected Marine Areas protect important species and habitats, but they will propel the UK forward in our mission to protect at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.'

The HPMAs form part of the Environment Improvement Plan, which sets out how the government intends to improve England's biodiversity over the next 20 years. Designating more marine protected areas, and restoring existing ones, are a key part of these plans.

Where are the new Highly Protected Marine Areas?

  • Allonby Bay (Irish Sea) – Located off the coast of Cumbria, this is the smallest of the newly-announced sites. It is located within an existing Marine Protected Area, with the HPMA covering areas containing spawning grounds for fish such as cod, dense mussel beds and intertidal habitats which attract seabirds like oystercatchers.
  • Dolphin Head (English Channel) - As its name suggests, this area attracts marine mammals such as Risso's dolphin and harbour porpoise. While it is a relatively damaged area, it is still more diverse than other areas of the Eastern Channel and is thought that it is well placed to recover.
  • North East of Farnes Deep (North Sea) - At 492 square kilometres, approaching the same size of the Isle of Man, this is currently the largest of the HPMAs. The area was picked for the diversity of ecosystem services it provides, from filter-feeding sponges to large areas of sediment which can store carbon.
Risso's dolphin are among the animals which live in the newly-designated HPMAs. Image © Wild_and_free_naturephoto / Shutterstock

While existing sites purportedly protect as much as 40% of the seas around the UK in some way, not all protected areas are created equal.

Within the HPMAs, which are set to be officially designated by 6 July 2023, any activities that are harmful will be banned. However, these sites make up less than 1% of the UK's territorial waters.

In other sites, these actions may be permitted in certain circumstances or at specific times. For example, offshore wind turbines are proposed for some protected areas, while fishing can take place in others during certain months.

These other uses can jeopardise the ability of these protected areas to protect biodiversity, with a recent report from the British Ecological Society warning that many aren't up to the job.

Conservation groups believe that HPMAs are the 'gold standard' for what a protected area should be, and have been campaigning for their introduction for many years.

Now that three sites have been announced, the groups have accused the government of not going far enough. Two proposed HPMAs were dropped due to concerns over the impact they would have on fishing and local people, while some of the announced sites were modified to allow angling.

Lindisfarne castle sits on a hill overlooking a rocky coastline, with a rusty iron ring in the sea

Lindisfarne was to be one of the HPMAs, but has now been ruled out following concerns it could cause hardship in an area dependent on fishing. Image © Allanah Fenwick/Shutterstock

Writing on The Wildlife Trust's blog, the organisation's Head of Marine Conservation, Dr Lisa Batey, said, 'The government came up with a longlist of over 30 important places that deserve the highest protection and whittled it down to five.'

'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.'

Along with other conservation groups, they are calling on the government to announce new HPMAs that include types of marine habitats missed in this first wave.

Tony Juniper, the chair of the environmental advisory body Natural England, has offered his support to identify future HPMAs.

'I welcome the designation of the first three Highly Protected Marine Areas as a first step towards greater protection of our marine wildlife,' Tony says. 'I also look forward to working with government to identify additional areas where important marine habitats and species can benefit from the highest levels of protection.'