Press release

First three marine areas receive highest levels of protection

Allonby Bay, North East of Farnes Deep and Dolphin Head receive highest level of protection for marine habitats and species.

The first three Highly Protected Marine Areas in England are now under the highest level of protection in our seas, as their designations come into effect today (5 July).

This will help protect some of our most precious marine species and habitats such as honeycomb worm reefs, northern gannets and harbour porpoises, improving the health of our ocean for generations to come.

As an independent coastal state, the Highly Protected Marine Areas represent a huge leap forward in the UK government’s ambitious marine conservation targets and commitments to protecting our blue planet – set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan and 25 Year Environment Plan. They also build on our international commitments, including to protect at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030 under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework which the UK spearheaded.

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.

Marine Minister Lord Benyon said:

Highly protected marine areas are a crucial part of marine protection measures. 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.

Allonby Bay is an area of significant importance due to its ‘blue carbon’ habitats which capture and store carbon, helping to tackle climate change. The protection of this site also benefits a number of shore birds – such as curlews and oystercatchers – that are attracted to the unique habitats.

North East of Farnes Deep’s complex seabed habitat will benefit from the new Highly Protected Marine Area status, with commercially important fish such as haddock, angler fish and surmullet better protected due to the crucial spawning and nursery habitats the site provides.

Human activity, such as trawling and scallop dredging, has degraded Dolphin Head  in recent years, and this new designation will create the potential for the full recovery of habitats and species. Aside from attracting a range of seabirds and marine mammals, such as black-legged kittiwake and harbour porpoise, this site contains feeding and nursery grounds of important commercial fish species such as cod, herring, plaice as well as ecologically important habitats such as ross worm reefs.

Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, said:

These Highly Protected Marine Areas will help boost the long-term sustainability of these areas of ocean, helping to soften some impacts of climate change while aiding the recovery of marine ecosystems and the fish, marine mammals and seabirds that depend upon them.

We are very excited to be working with Government on the identification of further marine areas with important species and habitats that can in future receive the same level of protection.

Hilary Florek, Chair of Marine Management Organisation said:

Today’s designation will deliver more crucial safeguards for vital biodiversity and help restore England’s marine ecosystems and this marks another step forward in the UK’s commitment to protect 30% of the global ocean by 2030.

With these three Highly Protected Marine Areas, our seas will receive stronger protection, supporting important habitats and species to recover. Having supported Defra with the identification and designation of these sites, MMO are now working closely with colleagues in government to ensure that activities in HPMAs including fishing, marine developments and recreational activities, are managed in accordance with the high level of protection required by these sites.

Joan Edwards, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at The Wildlife Trusts, said:

Our seas were once abundant in wildlife but their fragile habitats are now suffering from decades of trawling, development and pollution.

So the designation of these first Highly Protected Marine Areas off England’s shores is a significant first step towards ringfencing three small but precious places, where we’ll be able to learn what can really happen if nature is given an opportunity to recover. However, these three tiny spots cover just 0.4% of English seas – and we’re looking forward to seeing further designations so that we can safeguard our seas for the future.

Following a 12-week consultation process which took place last year, the government considered a wide range of views which ultimately helped to inform the final decision. The three Highly Protected Marine Areas were chosen due to the ecological importance of nature recovery in the sites, as well as considering their social and economic impacts.

The Highly Protected Marine Areas coming into force takes us a step closer to reaching some of the targets set out in our Environmental Improvement Plan, including our commitment to halting the decline in species abundance by 2030 so that wildlife can thrive.

These are the first sites to come into force and the government is committed to exploring additional suitable sites to be designated Highly Protected Marine Area status, with any future options being subject to consultation.

Published 5 July 2023
Last updated 5 July 2023 + show all updates
  1. Additional quote added from MMO

  2. First published.