Little Tern adults in flight, (c) Ben Andrew (

Today’s blog is written by Jacques Villemot, Marine Policy Officer, on the designation of the first three highly protected marine areas in the UK.

Yesterday, the 5th of July, a little revolution took place in our seas. Three sites, Allonby Bay, North East of Farnes Deep and Dolphin Head were officially designated as Highly Protected Marine Areas in England. This means that they now benefit from the highest level of protection in our seas, the first three sites in the UK to be under such strict governmental protection.

Highly Protected Marine Areas, or HPMAs, are sites at sea which prohibit activities within their boundaries which could have any negative impact on their ecosystems, offering the highest level of protection to any habitats or species within. This is a significant change of approach compared to other Marine Protected Areas in the UK, which instead focus on specific protected features within a site, meaning that usually a level of activities, including extractive or destructive ones, can keep taking place if deemed to not conflict with the protection of the targeted species or habitat.

In simple terms, this means that HPMAs will be areas in which no direct pressure from humans will be allowed – from fishing to construction, dredging or even anchoring. This is fantastic news, because though these sites are not yet numerous, this is a first step to getting a better idea of how our seas can recover if given a chance to do so, without any interference from direct human pressure. They are also sites which allow us to embed climate considerations in MPAs, by protecting both species and blue carbon habitats, which capture and lock away carbon in the seabed.

Razorbills foraging, (c) RSPB (

A little more about these three sites. They present some very different profile, from the small coastal site of Allonby Bay, in the northwest of England, which will benefit blue carbon habitats, to the larger offshore sites of Dolphin Head in the south of the country, or Farnes Deep in the northeast. Farnes Deep especially could present some direct benefits to our globally important seabirds, 10 species of which have been recorded using the area. Indeed, it is a significant spawning and nursing site for a number of important forage fish, including whiting or sandeels.

These three small jewels however don’t a crown make, and though promising, they must remain only a first step towards the expansion of this HPMA program as a gold standard for marine protection in England. Covering only 0.4% of English waters, there is still a way to go to reach the 10% of highly protected marine areas we would need to truly reverse the decline of biodiversity by 2030, as committed to by Government. Their role to help us understand and drive the full recovery of sites, increase the resilience of marine ecosystems to climate change, and help us to understand more about the management and recovery of blue carbon habitats will be vital in this space. As such, it is reassuring to see the commitment to designate HPMAs embedded in the Government’s Environment Improvement Plan, and the acknowledgement by Defra in their response to the consultation on the topic which ran earlier this year that they were already exploring additional sites for consideration this year.

The expansion of this program beyond the English border will also be key, and in that sense, it is disappointing that ministers have postponed progress on Highly Protected Marine Areas in Scotland. Restoration of Scotland’s degraded marine environment is essential, but it is also essential that local communities are behind proposals, so let’s hope that the extra time being taken results in community support and effective protections.

Our seas are struggling, and the designation of the first HPMAs in England is a significant step towards addressing this. However, and as acknowledged by Government, the program must be extended beyond these three sites, so HPMAs have a chance to make a significant contribution to halting and reversing biodiversity loss and tackle climate change, delivering benefits for nature but also coastal communities in the process.

We look forward to continuing working with local coastal communities and governments to explore the extension of the HPMA network and help reverse the loss of nature in our seas.

  • This is wonderful news which marks a step in right direction to help preserve our seas and sustain life on Earth as we know it. These HPMA need to grow in number and size, and obviously not just in UK waters. Hopefully all other coastal nations will develop similar designated areas.

  • It is a fact that, compared to the millions of Britons who live in cities, towns and the countryside, only a comparative few live on the coast, and near enough to the coast and our seas which surround us, to enjoy them.  So naturally we hear more about safeguarfing our countryside, than Safeguarding our coasts and seas.  But our coasts and seas are as equally vital and important to us.  So we must never lose sight of this fact, and ensure an equitable and effective initiative of support ensures the HPMA network succeeds in reversing the loss of the vitally essential nature in our seas.