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England’s three new Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) come into effect today (5 July), extending the highest level of protection for marine species and habitats in three zones in the Irish Sea, North Sea, and English Channel: Allonby Bay, North East of Farnes Deep, and Dolphin Head.

The HPMA designations “represent a huge leap forward in the UK government’s ambitious marine conservation targets and commitments to protecting our blue planet”, according to UK Government agency DEFRA, and reflect the UK government’s commitment to ambitious marine conservation targets set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan and 25 Year Environment Plan.

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DEFRA argues that in addition to protecting biodiversity and contributing to climate change mitigation through “blue carbon” sequestration, the HPMA designations will also help to safeguard fish stocks in support of the UK’s fishing industry. Taken together, the new HPMAs cover a total of 0.4% of English seas.

“Evidence has indicated that stronger protections can lead to more and larger species in English seas and surrounding waters, contributing to the long-term productivity and sustainability of our fisheries sector. For example, the Lyme Bay reserve – one of the largest areas protected from dredging and trawling in the UK – demonstrated higher levels of biodiversity within the reserve area than outside, conserving species such as pink sea fans, lobsters and scallops,” a UK Government source said in a statement.

New HPMAs selected for blue carbon, biodiversity and nursery grounds for fish stocks

“Highly protected marine areas are a crucial part of marine protection measures,” said UK Marine Minister Lord Benyon. “Today is a significant milestone for the UK as we ramp up action to recover our important marine ecosystems, and make sure species and habitats can thrive in healthy, diverse environments. This is a first step with more announcements to come.”

In the Irish Sea, Allonby Bay is a 5.5 miles (8.9 km) crescent-shaped bay of the Solway Firth on the north-western shore of Cumbria, England. The 27.6 km2 HPMA was selected for its “blue carbon” habitats, according to DEFRA. Such habitats actively sequester and store carbon, contributing to global climate change mitigation efforts. Moreover, the protected site provides a habitat for a variety of shorebirds, including curlews and oystercatchers, drawn to its unique ecological features.

North East of Farnes Deep is an offshore HPMA covering a 492 km2 zone in the North Sea, approximately 55km from the coast of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland. DEFRA notes that its HPMA designation is due to its “complex seabed habitat”, with protection intended to benefit commercially important fish species like haddock, anglerfish, and surmullet by safeguarding crucial spawning and nursery grounds, thereby promoting their long-term sustainability.

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The third HPMA, Dolphin Head, is also offshore, located in the English Channel approximately 55km south of Selsey Bill, West Sussex, and covering an area of 466km2. According to DEFRA, this marine zone has faced degradation due to activities such as trawling and scallop dredging, but as a protected area, it is capable of habitat and species recovery, supporting a diverse range of seabirds and marine mammals, including black-legged kittiwakes and harbour porpoises. Additionally, it encompasses feeding and nursery grounds for commercially significant fish species like cod, herring, and plaice, along with ecologically important habitats such as ross worm reefs.

Further English HMPAs will be considered, subject to public consultation, says UK Government

The implementation of Highly Protected Marine Areas aligns with international commitments, including the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, where the UK spearheaded efforts to protect at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030. Scientific evidence suggests that stronger protections in English seas and surrounding waters can contribute to increased biodiversity and the sustainability of the fisheries sector.

The UK government says the selection of the HPMAs was informed by careful consideration of a wide range of viewpoints through a 12-week consultation process. As the initial sites come into effect, the government says it remains committed to exploring further suitable areas for potential Highly Protected Marine Area designations, with any future options subject to consultation.

Previously five sites were under consideration as potential HPMAs in England, however objections from stakeholders and local fishing communities meant that at least one of these – Lindisfarne in Northumberland – was removed from the list.

Meanwhile, Scottish HMPAs shelved – for now

The news comes in the wake of controversy elsewhere in the British Isles over the designation of HPMAs.

In Scotland, plans to designate 10% of Scottish waters as highly protected zones by 2026 were recently scrapped, following protests from a coalition of industry organizations including the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, Salmon Scotland, Seafood Scotland, Scottish Association of Fish Producers’ Organisations, Community Fisheries Inshore Alliance, and Scottish Seafood Association.

However, the Scottish Government said it remains “firmly committed tot he outcome of enhanced marine protection”. Government sources say that their next steps will include seeking greater community and industry involvement in future HPMA proposals.

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