The Problem with UK Marine Protected Areas

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are areas of the ocean that are designated as protected zones under legislation, to protect species and preserve the ecosystem and habitat.

In the UK, these MPAs protect Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and help to maintain populations of cetaceans, and other marine species.

Currently, around 40% of UK waters (inshore & offshore) are designated MPAs, but only 5km2 out of over 92,000 km2 are classed as no-take zones - meaning no fishing or removal of species is allowed. This means destructive fishing methods and harmful disturbance can still occur in these supposedly ‘protected’ areas, resulting in a loss of species and biodiversity.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) published a report that found 98% of offshore MPAs have had trawling occur in the last 5 years. Trawling is a fishing method where nets are dragged along the bottom of the seabed, collecting fish and crabs, but in the process destroy everything in its way - the ecosystem and habitat!

The majority of commonly fished species in the UK are caught this way, including cod, haddock, plaice, and sole. Often, larger animals such as cetaceans and sharks are caught as bycatch (by accident), usually resulting in the death or injury to the animal. Not only does trawling impact species, when damaging the seafloor carbon is also released – researchers found trawling could release up to 1.5 gigatons of carbon emissions a year, 0.5 more than the aviation industry!

The UK now has an amazing opportunity to prevent this from happening in UK waters – leaving the EU could allow stricter and more closely managed legislation and practices to be put into place.

The MCS has called for a ban on bottom trawling in MPAs. This could help preserve key-species, as well as help maintain healthy populations of commercial fish (such as cod and haddock) which are vital to the success of the fishing industry.

MPAs have been shown to improve biodiversity and provide a haven for marine species where there is plenty of food resources and shelter for reproduction – this then spills over into neighbouring areas that aren’t protected, as numbers of species increase. MPAs are vital for marine conservation, reducing carbon emissions, as well as food stability and the fishing industry, providing they are managed properly with correct legislation.

The government have recently announced plans to ban bottom trawling in the Dogger Bank area, which is home to a variety of species, including cetaceans such as porpoises and dolphins.

A lot of marine scientists argue that the installation of wind farms and marine renewable energy can be used to enforce MPAs, as the infrastructure needed would prevent bottom trawling in the area completely.

Although controversial, MPAs with no-take zones as a side effect of renewable energy installation could provide an answer to the UK's MPA problem – the infrastructure put in often acts as artificial reefs for many species and would be a safe area for species once installed.

The main issue with this argument is that the installation of the renewables, such as wind farms, cause major disruption and confusion for animals, especially cetaceans.

Dogger Bank is planned to receive the installation of the UK's largest wind farm in 2023 – although surrounded by controversy, the area could see a huge improvement in biodiversity post installation if an MPA is also set up in conjunction.

Clearly, by preventing trawling from taking place, there are numerous benefits to the ocean and ecosystems; reducing carbon emissions and conserving species to improve biodiversity is the main issue of today and will further help the UK's contribution to tackling climate change. Although a lot of the action needs to come from the government in the form of legislation and enforcement, there are ways you can help!

  • Ensuring any seafood bought has the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) blue tick indicates the fish should have been sustainably farmed and caught, reducing the chance of contributing to the trawling issue.

  • Writing to your local MP and calling for action on social media also raises awareness of this issue and increases the likelihood of action being taken in your local area.

  • Engagement with the public and local organisations was key to the setup of Plymouth Sound National Marine Park – the very first in the UK which will bring humans and the natural marine environment together.

The UK has a great opportunity to lead the way in sustainable fishing practices and could demonstrate the importance of MPAs whilst engaging and involving local communities every step of the way.


Written by Cerys Highams

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