DEFRA commits to strict ‘no go’ marine protected areas

DEFRA has pledged to create a raft of highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) in which all damaging activities would be banned by 2022, as the government reveals 80 countries have now signed up to an international target to protect at least 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030.

The countries that have signed up include India, Guyana, South Korea, and - landlocked - Austria, following a meeting of the G7 Climate and Environment ministers.

Today, which also marks World Ocean Day, the government said it has launched plans for a pilot scheme which would bring HPMAs to life at selected UK sites.

The commitment comes in response to an independent review carried out last year by former fisheries minister Richard Benyon, which called for HPMAs to be set up, prohibiting all damaging activities including fishing, trawling and construction, in order to allow ocean ecosystems to recover.

Responding to the announcement, Tanya Steele, chief executive at the World Wildlife Fund said: “The government’s commitment to properly safeguard UK seas through HPMAs is a much-needed step forward, but it’s critical that this level of protection is given to at least 10% of UK waters, and that urgent action is taken to fully recover the whole of the ocean. 

“This includes setting a new deadline to achieve Good Environmental Status, following the missed 2020 deadline."

The government says it will develop criteria for identifying the sites and create a list of potential ones this year. Designation would then be made in 2022. 

According to a release from DEFRA, the sites to be piloted could be in or outside of existing marine protected areas - where they would benefit from a higher level of protection. 

The sites will be identified by Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee with input from stakeholders with a formal consultation set to launch next year.

The release added that the government “recognises that the strict protections implied by HPMAs will cause some concerns with other sea users and intends to liaise closely with them throughout the process, including the fishing industry."

The Wildlife and Countryside Link’s marine group has welcomed the news, but co-chair Sean Clement said in a statement that: “We need these trials to ramp up to wider protection as soon as possible in order to reach our ambitious 2030 targets, and help prevent the devastation that over-fishing, pollution and other issues are dealing out to our blue planet.”

DEFRA’s announcement comes on the same day that a cross-party group of parliamentarians has pledged to be ‘Blue Carbon Champions’, supporting the Marine Conservation Society’s call for a four nation Blue Carbon Strategy. This would focus on scaling up marine rewilding, integrating blue carbon protection and recovery into climate mitigation and environmental management policies, and working with the private sector to develop and support sustainable and innovative low-carbon commercial fisheries and aquaculture.

The group’s Blue Carbon Champions include the Conservatives’ Sally-Ann Hart, Labour’s Kerry McCarthy, Lib Dem’s Lord Teverson and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas.

Meanwhile, environmental pressure group Greenpeace warned today that the oceans are in a “death spiral” caused by climate change and destructive fishing.