Government says yes to Highly Protected Marine Areas

Government says yes to Highly Protected Marine Areas

Copyright, Alex Mustard

The Wildlife Trusts cheer long fought-for arrival of first ever sea sanctuaries where all damaging activities will be banned.

Last year, the Benyon review of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) was published by Defra. The Wildlife Trusts backed its recommendations that HPMAs should be an essential part of the UK network for protection and recovery of the marine environment, and that the government should introduce HPMAs as soon as possible.

Today, on World Oceans Day 2021, Defra has announced it will begin the process for designating HPMAs by the end of 2022, setting an ambitious commitment to protect our seas. The Wildlife Trusts believe there is an overwhelming case for the designation of HPMAs across our seas which would see a ban on all damaging activities, offering the strictest possible protections for the marine environment and giving nature the best chance of recovery.

The Wildlife Trusts have called for HPMAs for the last three years and launched a petition urging speedy implementation which was signed by over 10,000 people. Joan Edwards, director of policy and public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts was invited to be on the review panel.


The removal of all harmful activities – from fishing and trawling to construction – has never been attempted in UK waters before.

Joan Edwards says:

“This new type of marine protection will be the gold standard for rewilding parts of the sea. It’s a fantastic step-forward, one which The Wildlife Trusts and over 10,000 of our supporters have been waiting for – we’re absolutely delighted!

“The removal of all harmful activities – from fishing and trawling to construction – has never been attempted in UK waters before. This is an historic moment and we’re certain that HPMAs will help our seas become healthier and that degraded underwater habitats will be better able to recover.

“This special form of protection is vitally needed. Decades of overexploitation and pollution have left our precious seas damaged and the wealth of wildlife that once lived there is much diminished. It is hard for us to imagine the abundant scenes that historic records reveal, with dolphins, whales and seabirds as far as the eye can see and huge numbers of fish which were far bigger than you see today.

“Existing Marine Protected Areas are limited in their ability to restore nature as they only go as far as conserving its current, sometimes damaged state. HPMAs will allow us to see what truly recovering seas look like. They will set a new bar against which other protected areas could be measured.”

Following today’s announcement, The Wildlife Trusts will be participating in the Government’s consultation process: we believe HPMAs should be designated in each regional sea, in inshore, nearshore and offshore English waters, encompassing a range of habitats so that experts can study how different ecosystems recover when pressures are reduced.

In order for HPMAs to be effective, The Wildlife Trusts are calling for:

  • HPMAs to be a whole-site approach, protecting all the wildlife and habitats within their boundaries with effective management measures
  • HPMAs should be sufficient in size and number, and well monitored to understand what happens when damaging activities are removed and how our seas can recover
  • This will also help us determine appropriate management measures for the rest of the Marine Protected Area network
  • HPMAs must provide a higher level of protection than other types of protected area, allowing marine areas to return to as natural a state as possible, with more wildlife

The designation of HPMAs will act as a mechanism for recovery and should contribute significantly to the Government’s commitment to protecting 30% of our seas by 2030. HPMAs will also act as a natural solution to help store carbon and tackle climate change, as well as generating benefits through tourism, recreation and marine education.

Joan Edwards continues:

“HPMAs will allow wildlife and habitats to be conserved on a large scale. This will have multiple benefits such as increasing the number, diversity and size of fish, as well as enabling the ‘spill-over’ of species to other areas, helping to restock our depleted waters and benefit commercial fisheries. HPMAs will provide space for nature and wonderful places where people can experience rejuvenated marine life.

“We know HPMAs will work. When bottom trawling was banned from Lyme Bay in 2008, we saw the astonishing recovery of beautiful sunset corals and pink sea fans within just a few years. When fishing was banned off Lundy, fisheries benefited from increased lobsters and tourism boomed following positive marine publicity.”

Editor's Notes

Benyon Review

In June 2019, the Secretary of State announced a review to examine whether and how the strongest protections for areas of sea, known as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), could be introduced. The review was led by Richard Benyon MP. The review ran from June 2019 to June 2020. It considered the waters for which the Secretary of State has responsibility: the English inshore and offshore and Northern Ireland offshore zones.

8th June 2020 – Benyon Review recommendations:

The Review recommends that HPMAs are an essential part of the UK MPA network for protection and recovery of the marine environment and the government should introduce HPMAs within existing MPA.

Other key recommendations of the Benyon review include:

  • HPMAs should be defined as areas of the sea that allow the protection and recovery of marine ecosystems. They prohibit extractive, destructive and depositional uses and allow only non-damaging levels of other activities.
  • HPMAs should take a whole site approach, protecting all species and habitats within their boundaries.
  • Government should acknowledge displacement in its decision making and put strategies in place to support marine uses and avoid creating new problems from moving pressures to other parts of the marine environment.
  • Government should adopt the principles of transparency and early, continuous engagement with a range of stakeholders in HPMA site consideration.
  • Government should use ecological principles to identify HPMAs and use social and economic principles as a secondary filter.
  • Government should adopt co-management to agree effective management in partnership with sea users.
  • Pilot sites should have sufficient geographic spread to cover nearshore, inshore and offshore areas and different regional seas.

About Joan Edwards

Joan Edwards OBE trained as a marine biologist at Bangor University and joined The Wildlife Trusts as their first marine conservation officer in 1987. She was the first conservation member of a Sea Fisheries Committee in 1992. Joan was made aware of the damage to Lyme Bay reefs by local fisherman in 1994 and was behind the government’s landmark announcement of the Lyme Bay protected area in 2007. She was instrumental in the development of the Marine and Coastal Access Act and led the NGOs’ collective campaign to get it through parliament. Joan took part in the identification of the network of Marine Conservation Zones in English waters and most recently in the Benyon review into Highly Protected Marine Areas.

The Wildlife Trusts

The Wildlife Trusts believe that people need nature and it needs us. We are here to make the world wilder and to make nature part of everyone’s lives. We are a grassroots movement of 46 charities with more than 850,000 members and 38,000 volunteers. No matter where you are in Britain, there is a Wildlife Trust inspiring people and saving, protecting and standing up for the natural world. With the support of our members, we care for and restore special places for nature on land and run marine conservation projects and collect vital data on the state of our seas. Every Wildlife Trust works within its local community to inspire people to create a wilder future – from advising thousands of landowners on how to manage their land to benefit wildlife, to connecting hundreds of thousands of school children with nature every year.