Policy paper

2010 to 2015 government policy: marine environment

Updated 8 May 2015

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

This is a copy of a document that stated a policy of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The previous URL of this page was https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/protecting-and-sustainably-using-the-marine-environment. Current policies can be found at the GOV.UK policies list.


Our seas give us vital goods and services, including healthy, secure food supplies and transport routes. They also help to regulate our climate and give millions of people the chance to enjoy the natural environment.

The UK has some of the richest marine ecosystems in the world, including over 8,000 different species and important seabird populations.

The competing demands for uses of our seas can put pressure on the marine environment. Some habitats and species are threatened, for example by climate change and ocean acidification. Many species have been depleted by fishing and are now at very low levels.


Planning the future sustainable use of marine resources

We’re working with the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to have marine plans in place for all English seas by 2021.

The MMO has published the east inshore and offshore marine plans and is now implementing them.

The MMO has started preparing plans for the south inshore and offshore areas. Read the statement of public participation which explains how interested people and organisations can be involved in the planning process.

Protecting the seas from pollution

We’re protecting the marine environment from pollution through the marine licensing system. This prevents people from dumping waste and other matter into the sea.

This means we’re meeting our international obligations under the London Protocol on dumping, the OSPAR Convention and EU legislation.

Work is underway for the UK to approve the amendment of the London Protocol. This will result in an international binding system of permits for ocean fertilisation research. Ocean fertilisation is a form of geoengineering in the marine environment. It involves adding nutrients to nutrient depleted areas of the ocean to increase plankton production. Ocean fertilisation could be used to increase fish stock as well as being a potential technique to counteract climate change. These permits will ensure effective international regulation while our understanding of the effects of geoengineering on the environment is still limited.

Simplifying marine regulations

We’re simplifying marine regulations. This is part of our wider work to reduce the burden of regulation on businesses.

Following the Red Tape Challenge website, we prepared marine proposals. These were used to develop the water and marine implementation plan. We’re now taking forward the actions in the implementation plan.

We’ve implemented reforms to the way regulations for coastal projects and investments are implemented and enforced. This includes introducing exemptions from marine licensing to reduce the burden on operators and fast tracking licensing of low risk activities.

We’ve agreed a Coastal Concordat between Defra, its regulators and local government to improve co-ordination for coastal development projects and simplify the application process. Thirteen local authorities are acting as early adopters of the Concordat and we are preparing a report on progress.

Protecting and conserving marine biodiversity

We’re establishing a network of marine protected areas by 2016, including:

  • European Marine Sites (Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas)
  • SSSIs with marine components
  • Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs)

We’re modifying our approach to the management of commercial fisheries in European Marine Sites to make sure the sites are protected in a way which meets the requirements of the EU Habitats Directive.

Protecting the most threatened marine species

We’re working in the UK and around the world to protect endangered marine species, including whales, dolphins, sharks, skates and rays, and seabirds. We’re taking a range of actions including:

Improving the marine environment

All the actions we’re taking to protect and sustainably use the marine environment are helping us to implement the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. We’ve set targets for a healthy marine environment by 2020 under this directive.

We published the first part of our strategy to do this in 2012. The second part of our strategy was published in 2014.

Supporting marine science and research

We’re working with a range of scientific organisations to make sure that our policies are based on sound evidence provided by high-quality marine science.


Marine planning system

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 introduced measures to enable the sustainable management and use of marine resources. These included the marine policy statement, marine plans and marine licensing.

Marine policy statement

With the devolved administrations, we published the ‘UK marine policy statement’ in March 2011. This:

  • applies to all UK waters
  • is the framework for preparing marine plans
  • sets out the general environmental, social and economic considerations that need to be taken into account in marine planning
  • provides direction for marine licensing and other authorisation systems in each UK administration
  • provides guidance for decision makers when planning for, and permitting development in, the UK marine area

It’s based on the objectives set out in ‘Our seas – a shared resource: high level marine objectives’.

Marine planning

Marine plans must be consistent with the ‘marine policy statement’, so that there is a strong link between national policy and individual developments. Plans will set out policies for managing marine resources and activities. Regulators will make licensing and enforcement decisions in accordance with marine plans.

The Marine and Coastal Access Act requires the secretary of state to consider, after the public consultation and before adopting a marine plan, whether there is a need for an independent investigation of the plan to resolve any outstanding issues.

Marine licensing

The new marine licensing system took effect in April 2011.

The marine licence covers removals from the seabed and dredging, as well as construction and deposits. Certain low-risk activities, or activities that are regulated through other legislation, are exempted from the requirement for a marine licence. This reflects our aim to minimise burdens on marine users whilst protecting the environment.

The MMO is responsible for licensing and enforcement in all waters adjacent to England and all UK offshore waters, except those adjacent to Scotland.

Integrated Coastal Zone Management

Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) aims to get policy makers, decision makers and stakeholders to work together in their approach to coastal areas, on land and at sea.

In 2002, European member states adopted a recommendation on implementing ICZM in Europe. Following a review of progress in 2007, the European Commission (EC) concluded that no further actions or new legislation were needed at that stage.

In 2010, the EC asked member states to report on ICZM implementation since 2006. The UK government responded to the Commission.

The principles of ICZM are integrated into the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. In particular marine planning will contribute to ICZM. When preparing marine plans, the MMO will try to make sure the plans are compatible with land planning in England.

Who we’ve consulted

We are currently consulting on:

In January 2014, with the devolved administrations, we ran a consultation on the Marine Strategy Framework Directive monitoring programmes.

In July 2013 the Marine Management Organisation launched a consultation on the draft Marine Plans for the East Inshore and Offshore areas.

We consulted on proposals for the designation of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in English inshore and English and Welsh offshore waters, in December 2012.

In 2012, with the devolved administrations, we ran a consultation on the initial stages of the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

In 2010, with the devolved administrations, we consulted on the marine policy statement and supporting documents. The policy statement was subject to parliamentary scrutiny in January 2011.

Following a consultation in 2010, we published a description of the Marine Planning System for England and its related impact assessment (which summarised the expected costs and benefits of marine planning in England). The MMO uses these documents in preparing marine plans for England.

In 2009 we consulted on the Marine Plan area boundaries for English inshore and offshore regions and the criteria for selecting the order in which the Marine Management Organisation should begin planning within those regions.

Bills and legislation

The UK signed up to the 1992 OSPAR Convention and the Bergen Statement. OSPAR helps co-ordinate the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive by EU member states sharing the North East Atlantic.

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 provides for better protection for our marine environment. Read the impact assessment and research reports.

The act consolidates and modernises the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 and the Coast Protection Act 1949 plus secondary legislation. The MMO and Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities were set up under the act.

In March 2010 the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs delegated marine plan functions to the Marine Management Organisation under Section 55 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

The Marine Licensing (Exempted Activities) (Amendment) Order 2013 came into force on 6 April 2013. It exempts a range of activities from marine licensing. See guidance on dredging.

The Marine Licensing (Application Fees) Regulations 2014 as amended by The Marine Licensing (Application Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 established a revised fees and charges structure for marine licensing based on an hourly rate with maximum ceilings for ‘fast track’ and ‘routine’ projects.

The Public Bodies (Marine Management Organisation) (Fees) Order 2014 will allow the MMO to recover the cost of regulatory activities for monitoring, variations and transfers of marine licences. This Order applies from 1 October 2014.

The Marine Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 reflect changes made to marine consenting under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

The UK marine protected areas network, which protects important marine species and habitats, is designated through a range of legislation including the EU Wild Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive; Convention on wetlands (Ramsar sites) and Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (Sites of Special Scientific Interest).

The Conservation of Habitats and Species (Amendment) Regulations 2012 came into force in England and Wales in August 2012. They cover territorial seas out to 12 nautical miles. The Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 also came into force in August 2012.

Marine Conservation Zones under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 replace Marine Nature Reserves in England designated under Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

In March 2012 Defra published the report of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives Implementation Review.

Who we’re working with

As well as the devolved administrations, we work with a range of organisations.

Delivery partners and research centres

The Marine Management Organisation has a range of responsibilities, including marine planning, licensing and environmental conservation.

Natural England advises on the natural environment in England. Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) advises on national and international nature conservation.

Centre for Environmental, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) carries out research on the marine environment. Natural Environment Research Council is the UK’s main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences.

European and international organisations

The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas advises on the effects of human exploitation on marine ecosystems. OSPAR protects the environment of the north east Atlantic. International Whaling Commission manages the world’s great whales and ASCOBANS conserves smaller whales, dolphins and porpoises. CITES ensures that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Appendix 1: marine science, research and evidence

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

To ensure that policy-making is based on sound evidence, the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee brings together major funders of marine science in the UK to implement the UK Marine Science Strategy.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published its report on marine science in April 2013 and the government’s response to its report in June 2013.

Defra’s role

Defra funds and manages research and monitoring programmes relating to the marine environment. This includes work with a range of scientific organisations on issues such as climate change and ocean acidification.

We also co-ordinate research with other sponsors of scientific work in the UK and the EU.

Our work is guided by:

To inform our policies, we use a range of evidence including:

See the ‘Marine science yearbooks’ for current and completed marine biodiversity and environment projects funded by Defra.

Use the project codes in the yearbooks to search the science pages for more information.

UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy

Defra has a leading role in the UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS) community.

The UKMMAS report Charting progress 2: the state of UK seas describes progress since the Charting Progress 2005 report towards achieving the UK marine vision.

See the government commentary on Charting Progress 2.

Marine Science Co-ordination Committee

The Marine Science Co-ordination Committee (MSCC) is a partnership of the main marine science funding government departments, the Devolved Administrations, environment agencies, key UK marine science providers and six independent members. It reports directly to a group of ministers, chaired by the UK Marine Science Minister.

The MSCC aims to make UK marine science more effective and efficient through delivery of the UK Marine Science Strategy and improvement in UK marine science co-ordination.

Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership

The Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership co-ordinates evidence on marine climate change and guidance on climate change adaptation for the UK. It publishes report cards summarising the latest evidence.

Marine Environmental Data and Information Network

Defra sponsors the Marine Environmental Data and Information Network (MEDIN). MEDIN is partnership of UK organisations improving access to marine data. Within the MEDIN framework, Defra supports:

Marine science events

See the UK Marine Science Events Calendar.

Appendix 2: implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

EU member states need to co-operate to deal with many of the threats facing Europe’s seas.

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) requires member states to achieve ‘good environmental status’ in Europe’s seas by 2020.

The directive describes good environmental status in 11 main points which cover all the important aspects of the marine ecosystem and all the main human pressures on them.

To achieve a ‘good’ environmental status means:

  • protecting the marine environment
  • preventing its deterioration and restoring it where practical
  • using marine resources sustainably

The EC’s decision document provides more detailed criteria and indicators of good environmental status.

Requirements of the directive

The directive came into force on 15 July 2008 and was transposed into UK law by the Marine Strategy Regulations 2010. It requires member states to:

  • provide an assessment of the current state of their seas by July 2012
  • provide a set of detailed characteristics of what good environmental status means for their waters, and associated targets and indicators, by July 2012
  • establish a monitoring programme to measure progress by July 2014
  • establish a programme of measures for achieving good environmental status by 2016

We consulted on the first two of these requirements in March 2012 and published the UK Marine Strategy Part One in December 2012.

We consulted on proposals for the UK monitoring programmes for good environmental status between January and April 2014. We published the UK marine strategy part two in July 2014.

We are currently consulting on the UK programme of measures for achieving good environmental status.

How the directive fits with other marine policies

For the UK, the directive is part of a set of policies to help us meet our aim to achieve clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas. Policies like the implementation of the Marine and Coastal Access Act, and the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, will help us achieve good environmental status.

More information

More information about the directive is available:

Contact Defra at MSFDTeam@defra.gsi.gov.uk

Appendix 3: protecting the most threatened marine species

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Protecting whales

Whale populations have not recovered from past over exploitation. They face serious threats such as pollution, habitat degradation, ship strikes and climate change. Most species of great whale are still listed as threatened or endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is responsible for the conservation of the world’s great whales. We want the IWC to work towards the greater conservation of whales. We’ve set out our views on the future direction for the IWC in ‘The International Whaling Commission: the way forward’. We play an active part in IWC meetings.

Commercial whaling

We oppose all forms of whaling, other than some limited subsistence whaling for local communities (aboriginal subsistence whaling).

We believe that there are strong ecological, economic and moral arguments for protecting whales.

We think that properly managed whale watching is the only truly sustainable use of whales and other cetaceans.

In 1986 the IWC placed a moratorium on commercial whaling.

Under the guise of scientific research, Japan continues to kill whales, exploiting a loophole in the IWC moratorium. Iceland and Norway, having lodged objections to the moratorium, continue commercial whaling. Together Japan, Norway and Iceland kill over 1000 whales each year using objections and special permits. More than 39,000 whales have been killed and their meat sold commercially since the IWC prohibited commercial whaling in 1986.

Iceland’s whaling is incompatible with its EU aspirations. We are urging Iceland to align with the EU position. All whale species are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Most are given the highest level of protection, preventing any international commercial trade. A number of countries, such as Norway, Iceland and Japan, have reservations in place for some species. This means that they can continue to trade these species between them and other countries that have not signed up to CITES.

Protecting cetaceans

The UK is working to conserve small cetaceans through the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS).

The UK and many other IWC members continue to push for the IWC to have responsibility also for managing small cetaceans (small whales, dolphins and porpoises).

Although cetaceans have legal protection throughout Europe, they are sometimes caught and injured or killed accidentally during commercial fishing activities. This is known as ‘by-catch’. There are special measures to reduce by-catch.

The UK submits an annual report to the European Commission on the steps taken to reduce cetacean by-catch, as required under European Council Regulation EC 812/2004.

Stranded whales, dolphins and porpoises

Every year, between 350 and 800 whales, dolphins and porpoises wash up on British shores. Since the UK Whale and Dolphin Stranding Scheme started in 1913, more than 25,000 animals have been recorded.

With the devolved administrations, we fund the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme to investigate stranded cetaceans, marine turtles and basking sharks. The programme has operated since 1990 and provides a systematic, co-ordinated approach to monitoring and understanding the causes of strandings. Guidance has been published on what to do if you find a stranded whale, dolphin, or porpoise.

Protecting sharks, skates and rays

Sharks, skates and rays are caught in commercial fisheries in European and UK waters. Many species are over-fished and their numbers have fallen to dangerously low levels.

The UK government is committed to making sure that all fisheries for sharks, skates and rays are sustainable and that endangered species have adequate protection.

We are:

  • implementing our shark, skate and ray conservation plan
  • introducing appropriate, scientifically-based conservation and fishery management measures within the EU and internationally
  • improving controls on the catches of sharks wherever they are caught
  • regulating the trade of shark products
  • banning wasteful ‘finning’ wherever it takes place.

Read our shark, skate and ray conservation plan and the 2013 review of progress.

Shark finning

The demand for shark fin soup in some parts of the world has led to an increase in the practice of ‘shark finning’. This involves removing and retaining the fins from a shark on board a fishing vessel and disposing of the carcass at sea.

The EU is implementing measures to ban shark finning.


Tope belong to the shark family and are found in European continental-shelf and coastal waters.

Tope is a relatively low-value species commercially, although in the UK it is a highly-prized sport fish. Its numbers are under pressure from fishing.

We are implementing a range of measures to protect tope.


Research shows that many seabirds are killed each year by getting caught in commercial fishing gear and becoming part of the fisheries by-catch. The seabirds most at risk from fishing activities include:

  • shearwaters
  • petrels
  • fulmars
  • gannets
  • gulls
  • sea ducks
  • divers
  • auks and grebes.

The Balearic shearwater is a critically endangered species that is particularly threatened by fishing activity in the Mediterranean.

EU Seabird Action Plan

We are supporting the European Commission’s seabird bycatch plan of action. It aims to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the accidental by-catch of seabirds within EU waters and by EU vessels operating outside EU waters.

Seabird by-catch in international waters

We are working with other countries and organisations to reduce seabird by-catch in international waters.

We helped to develop the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) in the Southern Oceans.

We are continuing to work with the European Commission to encourage regional fisheries management organisations to take action to reduce seabird by-catch on the high seas.

Bills and legislation

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling protects whales globally.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are protected Europe-wide under the Habitats Directive and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 makes it an offence to intentionally kill or injure these species. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 introduced a new offence of recklessly disturbing these species.

The UK is also a party to the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS), which aims to protect small whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The following measures aim to protect dolphins, porpoises and vulnerable sharks:

Appendix 4: marine protected areas

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Our seas are home to some of the best marine wildlife in Europe, with a wide diversity of underwater habitats and species. Many of our marine habitats and species are particularly rare and therefore of international importance.

The government is aiming to protect habitats and species in our seas by contributing to an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas. We are also working with the Devolved Administrations to achieve this.

We need these areas because the marine environment is coming under increasing pressure from human activity, which can damage and further threaten marine ecosystems.

By protecting our marine environment now, we can ensure that our seas, which are a common resource, will continue to contribute to our society for generations to come. To ensure this protection, restrictions may apply to some activities in marine protected areas eg fisheries.

The main types of marine protected areas in English waters are:

  • European Marine Sites giving legal protection to species and habitats of European importance
  • Marine Conservation Zones and SSSIs with marine components giving protection to species and habitats of national importance

There are now just under a quarter of English inshore waters within marine protected areas.

Natural England are responsible for providing conservation advice for all marine protected areas within English inshore and cross-border waters.

European Marine Sites

European Marine Sites or ‘Natura 2000′ sites consists of:

Based on current available evidence, the SAC network in UK waters is now complete. Defra is working with Natural England and JNCC to finish identifying and, where possible, classifying, more marine SPAs by the end of 2015. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is responsible for identifying offshore SACs and SPAs and Natural England is responsible for identifying them in English territorial waters.

Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs)

MCZs protect areas that are important to conserve the diversity of nationally rare, threatened and representative habitats and species. Designation of these zones takes social and economic factors into account, alongside the best available scientific evidence.

Similar schemes are operating in Wales and Scotland to contribute to a UK wide network of marine protected areas.

Designation of MCZs

In November 2013 the minister announced the designation of 27 MCZs in English inshore and English and Welsh offshore waters and outlined plans for future zones.

You can see the location of the 27 designated sites and find out further information about each site at JNCC Interactive Map.

Management measures

Management measures will be put in place by the regulators (Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs)) on a site by site basis. Natural England and the JNCC will advise the regulators about the vulnerability of the features included within the Designation Order and activities that are currently occurring within the site that will have a negative impact on the protected features.

Future MCZs

A second tranche of MCZs is planned for designation in 2015 with a third tranche to follow. This will complete the contribution to the ecologically coherent marine protected area network. Sites will be selected, largely based on the recommendation from the Regional MCZ Projects, to meet the requirements of the network. Further information on the second tranche was published in February 2014. A consultation on the sites proposed in the second round of designations is open until 24 April 2015. Natural England published their updated advice to Defra on these proposed sites in January 2015.

Defra is also undertaking a review of MCZ reference areas.

UK Overseas Territories and high seas Marine Protected Areas

We support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well the Overseas Territories’ governments, in developing MPAs in international waters.

The UK government supported the call in 2010 by governments of the states party to the Convention on Biological Diversity to strive for marine protected areas and other area-based mechanisms to protect 10% of our oceans by 2020.

We have designated these areas in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the British Indian Ocean Territory and the British Antarctica Territory.

In the Natural Environment White Paper, we committed to working towards delivering a new global mechanism to regulate the conservation of marine biodiversity in high seas (areas beyond countries national waters). Such an agreement should set up a clear means of designating high seas MPAs, building on the work undertaken by Regional Seas Conventions, eg OSPAR.