Do I need a marine licence?
Guidance on activities that may require a marine licence
The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) is responsible for marine licensing in English inshore and offshore areas and for Welsh and Northern Ireland offshore areas.
The inshore areas include any area which is submerged at mean high water spring tide up to the territorial limit. They also include the waters of every estuary, river or channel where the tide flows at mean high water spring tide. Even waters in areas which are closed permanently or intermittently by a lock or other artificial means against the regular action of the tide are included, where seawater flows into or out from the area, either continuously or from time to time.
The offshore areas include waters beyond the territorial limit in so far as they comprise the exclusive economic zone and the UK sector of the continental shelf.
The area described includes the bed and subsoil of the sea within those areas and for construction, improvements or alteration of works, the area above the water.
The MMO is also responsible for marine licensing of some activities outside of this area and in other parts of the world.
The MMO has developed a Geographical Information System (GIS) to assist you. Relevant layers on the GIS are grouped under ‘MMO marine licence jurisdiction’. they include:
- Mean high water (MHW)
- Marine Plan areas
- Welsh offshore marine area
- Northern Irish offshore
The MHW layer is indicative and the ultimate responsibility for investigating whether the proposed activities fall within that limit lies with you
We use the mean high water (MHW) line and marine plan areas to mark the jurisdiction of the MMO on our maps because it is the best tool available of understanding where land ends and the sea begins. MHW is found by combining lots of high water points on our coast over many years. But because our coastline changes over time; sometimes small changes such as weather and sea changes, or sometimes bigger changes such as when a new quay wall is built; means that the line may not be completely accurate. The MHW line also may not show areas which are behind lock gates, whether they are opened or not.
It is your responsibility to find out whether your activity is in the UK Marine Area. A good rule of thumb is if the area is wet from the normal flow of the tide then it is likely within the UK Marine Area. If you remain unsure whether your activity is in the UK Marine Area you can make an enquiry to the MMO.
Please be aware that the guidance provided on this page is indicative only, and may not cover every activity which may require a licence. You may wish to seek expert advice before proceeding with any activity.
You can apply for a licence online. You can also find out more information about how applications are assessed and the self-service licensing process. Some activities may be exempt from requiring a licence. Please read the exemption guidance to see whether an exemption may apply.
Activities that may need a marine licence
There are six categories of activity that may need a licence. These are:
- Construction, alteration or improvement of works
- Deposits of any substance or object
- Incineration of any substance or object
- Removal of any substance or object
- Scuttling of any vessel or floating container
These generally require a licence although there are exemptions which apply in some situations.
The MMO has developed an interactive assistance tool to help you decide if your proposed activity needs a licence. The tool also helps you work out if the activity is one that meets self-service marine licensing criteria and if so apply for a self-service licence.
Construction, alteration or improvement of any works
Constructing, altering or improving any works:
- in or over the sea
- on or under the sea bed
This includes but is not limited to the construction of wind farms, sea walls, jetties, bridges and ports. It also includes the maintenance of these works where it is an alteration or improvement to the works.
There are some exemptions to be aware of concerning coastal defences, emergency flood defences and harbour works. If an exemption applies then a licence would not be required.
If your activity does not benefit from an exemption but is limited to the maintenance of an existing structure or asset it may be suitable for self-service.
Many construction activities also require other consents. Works taking place partly on land often require planning permission from the local planning authority. If there is a discharge of some kind an environmental permit from the Environment Agency may be needed. For port developments this may include a harbour order, MMO is responsible for these. Offshore energy generating stations may also require some other consents from MMO.
Dredging involves the use of any device to move material (whether or not suspended in water) from one part of the sea or sea bed to another part. It includes the removal of material from the sea bed entirely. Dredging techniques include but are not limited to use of trailing-suction hoppers, plough and water injection for purposes including:
- to deepen berths and channels (navigational dredging)
- to extract sands and gravels for construction (aggregate dredging)
- to remove material to clear outfalls (clearance dredging).
Sample analysis may be needed to support a dredging licence application.
Some non-navigational clearance dredging and beach maintenance activities may be suitable for self-service marine licensing.
Deposit of any substance or object
Depositing any substance or object either in the sea or on or under the sea bed in the UK marine area, from a vehicle, vessel, aircraft, marine structure, floating container or a structure on land which has the purpose of depositing solids in the sea, may need a marine licence.
A licence may also be required for the deposit of a substance or object elsewhere in the world if the deposit is being made from a British vessel, aircraft or marine structure or from a floating container which is controlled from one of those set out.
Equally, a licence may be required for the deposit of a substance on object elsewhere in the world if the substance or object to be deposited was loaded on a vehicle, vessel, aircraft, marine structure or floating container anywhere in the UK (except Scotland) or in the UK marine licensing area.
This includes disposal of waste. This is tightly regulated and few types of waste are permitted to be disposed of to sea.
It also includes the burial at sea of human remains.
There are exemptions available for some activities including the placement of markers and buoys, scientific instruments, tracers and deposits in the course of aggregate dredging in certain circumstances.
If your activity is one that does not benefit from an exemption and involves the deposit of marker posts or marker buoys may be suitable for self-service marine licensing.
Incineration of any substance or object
Incineration of a substance or object on a vehicle, vessel, aircraft, marine structure or floating container within the UK marine area will require a marine licence.
A marine licence is also required for the incineration or a substance or object elsewhere in the world if the incineration is on a British vessel or British marine structure or if the incineration is on a floating container controlled from a British Vessel, British Aircraft or British Marine structure.
Equally, a marine licence is required if the substance or object for incineration elsewhere in the world was loaded on a vehicle, vessel, aircraft, marine structure or floating container anywhere in the UK (except Scotland) or in the UK marine licensing area.
In this context, incinerate means the combustion of a substance or object for the purpose of its thermal destruction.
Removal of any substance or object
Using a vehicle, vessel, aircraft, marine structure or floating container to remove any substance or object from the sea bed may require a marine licence.
There are exemptions for some removals.
If your activity is one that does not benefit from an exemption and is a minor removal it may be suitable for self-service marine licensing.
Scuttling of any vessel or floating container
Scuttling of a vessel or floating container within the UK marine area will require a marine licence.
A marine licence is also required to scuttle a vessel or floating container elsewhere at sea if the scuttling is controlled from a British vessel, British aircraft or British marine structure.
Equally, a marine licence is required to scuttle a vessel or floating container elsewhere at sea if the vessel or container has been towed or propelled for the purpose of scuttling, from any part of the UK (except Scotland) or from the UK marine licensing area, unless the towing or propelling began outside of that area.¶
Navigational dredging can be divided into two categories:
capital dredging is generally undertaken to create or deepen navigational channels, berths or trenches or to remove material unsuitable for the foundation of a construction project. It involves the removal of consolidated sediments
maintenance dredging is undertaken to keep channels, berths and other areas at their designed depths. It involves removing recently accumulated sediments such as mud, sand and gravel. To be classed as maintenance dredging the activity must take place where:
the level of the seabed to be achieved by the dredging proposed is not lower than it has been at any time during the past 10 years, and
there is evidence that dredging has previously been undertaken to that level (or lower) during that period
Sample analysis may be needed to support an application for a navigational dredging licence.
There is an exemption for low volume dredging in certain circumstances. A licence may not be needed if the low-volume dredging meets the conditions specified in the exemptions guidance.
Accelerated licensing process
If your activity is not exempt then some dredging activities may be suitable for an accelerated licensing process.
Dredging by harbour authorities
Section 75 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 provides an exemption for dredging or the disposal of dredged material carried out by or on behalf of a harbour authority in certain circumstances. Further information about the exemption and the qualifying criteria which must be met can be found in the exemptions guidance.
All other navigational dredging applications
Maintenance dredge protocol
Dredging activities need to be assessed for potential impacts on marine protected areas such as European and Ramsar sites. The Maintenance Dredging Protocol for England (MDP) seeks to improve the assessment process for licence applications by the production of baseline documents, which are explained below.
A baseline document should bring together all relevant, readily available, current and historical data on dredging activities. This helps authorities assess maintenance dredging activities and identify any likely significant effect, taking into account in-combination effects of dredging proposals. It must analyse the potential effects (if any) that dredging activities could have on the features of the European sites.
If you would like to discuss the potential for producing a baseline document for your area please contact us either by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone on 0300 123 1032.
Water Framework Directive
Further guidance on the WFD can be found on the Environment Agency website for dredging activity licence applications.
Dredging to extract aggregates – sand, gravel, and other marine minerals – from the English seabed needs a licence and a separate permission from the landowner.
The Crown Estate owns most of the seabed, but in some cases a local council, harbour authority or private land owner may own some areas near the shore.
MMO will check that the landowner has agreed to the extraction activity. Once the licence has been granted, the licence holder will enter into a production agreement with the landowner that usually includes any licence conditions determined by the MMO as part of the production agreement.
Extracting aggregates usually requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA). Licences are issued for a specific quantity of material to be extracted and for a specific duration, usually 15 years.
Regional environmental assessments
The marine aggregate industry has voluntarily produced marine aggregate regional environmental assessments (MAREAs) in the Humber, Anglian, Thames and South Coast regions. This is to allow licence applications and EIAs for specific sites to be considered in a regional context and ensure regional sustainability of aggregate extraction.
- provide a regional baseline for a number of marine aggregate sites
- help to evaluate potential cumulative effects of existing and future dredging operations.
Regional environmental characterisation surveys
Regional environmental characterisation (REC) surveys have also been carried out in the same regions. Each survey collected high quality data on:
- seabed habitats
- biological communities
- potential historic environment assets.
Dredging to clear silt from outfalls or culverts will usually require a licence but may be suitable for self-service licensing.
Sample analysis may be needed to support an application for a clearance dredging licence which does not meet self-service criteria.
Disposing of waste to sea
Disposing of most wastes or other matter at sea is prohibited by the OSPAR Convention.
Only the following types of waste may be disposed at sea, based on a detailed assessment of risks and a licence from the MMO:
- dredged material
- inert materials of natural origin
- fish waste – including shellfish and any part of a fish
No waste should be disposed of at sea if there is a safe alternative. You must make every effort to re-use, recycle, or use other recovery methods for dealing with waste. Disposal should only be a last option.
Sample analysis may be needed to support an application for a disposal licence.
When deciding whether to grant a disposal licence, MMO applies the waste hierarchy from the Waste Framework Directive which specifies the order of preference for how waste should be dealt with:
- prevention - can include not carrying out an activity and the refusal of a licence
- re-use – finding an alternative, beneficial use for waste material
- recycling - can include making high grade products from waste material
- other recovery - can include treatment to alter the physical nature of the waste material
- disposal at sea is the last resort.
You must propose an area where the disposal is to take place. You can either propose a site that has been authorised for dredge disposal or an entirely new site. Approving a new disposal site takes place in line with any marine plans or the Marine Policy Statement (MPS).
You must provide sufficient information for MMO to assess the proposal. MMO will decide if the material is suitable for sea disposal and whether the area proposed is appropriate.
You will need to provide site characterisation information to propose a new site. This is usually in the form of a site characterisation report that:
- assesses the need for a new site
- identifies suitable areas
- assesses requirements of the dredged material characteristics
- evaluates potential adverse effects
- compares candidate disposal sites.
The report should also consider site selection and summarise any consultations.
If a site is designated as a result of your licence application and characterisation report, you do not have exclusive use of that site. A licence may be granted to other operators to use the same site.
Markers and buoys
In certain circumstances the deposit or removal of moorings, aids to navigation, markers and buoys may be exempt from requiring a licence. Specifically there are exemptions for:
- Moorings and aids to navigation
- Markers for European marine sites and marine conservation zones
- Temporary markers
- Diver trails within restricted areas
Where the qualifying criteria contained in the relevant exemption is not met the deposit or removal of such objects may be suitable for self-service marine licensing.
Read the exemptions guidance for more details on the specific conditions.
Samples and investigations
Geophysical surveys such as side-scan sonar and multibeam do not require a licence.
In certain circumstances a removal activity for the purpose of taking a sample for testing or analysis where the sample taken is less than 1 cubic metre may be exempt from requiring a licence. Where the qualifying criteria contained in the relevant exemption is not met grab-samples, vibrocores, boreholes and other types of intrusive sampling may be suitable for self-service marine licensing.
Burials at sea
A licence is required for the burial of human remains at sea. However, this may be suitable for self-service processing provided certain criteria are met.
Information on burials at sea can be found on the Get a licence for a burial at sea in England page.
In certain circumstances a removal activity for the purpose removing an object accidentally deposited on the seabed may be exempt from requiring a licence.
Where the qualifying criteria contained in the relevant exemption is not met some removal activities may be suitable for self-service marine licensing.
If you are removing something from the seabed by hand during a dive you will not require a licence.
If you are using a vehicle, vessel, marine structure or floating container to facilitate the removal of an object or move sediment on the seabed you may require a licence.
For example, if you remove an object by hand from the seabed to a vessel, you would not need a licence, but if you use a hoist or winch attached to a vessel, or float to raise the object to the vessel, you do need a licence.
Guidance is available on the British Sub-Aqua Club website.
You must also comply with other legislation, such as the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010.
Some minor removals may be eligible for self-service marine licensing in certain circumstances.
You do not need a licence for the washing of slipways. However, you may require an environmental permit for discharging into surface water or ground water
Obstructions or dangers to navigation
In certain circumstances activity for the purpose of removing anything causing or likely to cause obstruction or danger to navigation may be exempt from requiring a licence.
Where the qualifying criteria contained in the relevant exemption is not met some removal activities may also be suitable for self-service marine licensing.
In certain circumstances the deposit, construction or removal of a pontoon with a deck area of 30m2 or less may be exempt from requiring a licence.
Where the qualifying criteria contained in the relevant exemption is not met a licence will be required.
In certain circumstances the deposit of any shellfish, trestle, raft, cage, pole, rope, marker or line in the course of shellfish propagation or cultivation may be exempt from requiring a licence. Where the qualifying criteria contained in the relevant exemption is not met a licence will be required.
Litter, seaweed and dead animals
In certain circumstances the removal of litter, seaweed or dead animals from beaches by or on behalf of a local authority may be exempt from requiring a licence.
Where the qualifying criteria contained in the relevant exemption is not met removal activities may be suitable for self-service marine licensing.
Cables and pipelines
You will not a need a marine licence to lay or maintain such cables outside the territorial sea. Where a cable runs through the UK territorial sea and beyond the territorial sea, you will need a licence from the MMO. The licence is only needed for the stretch of cable that runs through the territorial sea. The MMO must grant such a licence but may attach conditions to protect the environment, human health or other uses of the sea. A licence will be required for any associated rock protection.
The standard marine licensing rules apply the cable runs only through UK territorial waters or is constructed or used in connection with:
- the exploration of the UK sector of the continental shelf
- the exploitation of natural resources of that sector
- the operations of artificial islands, installations and structures under UK jurisdiction, or
- the prevention, reduction or control of pollution from pipelines
The construction, alteration or improvement of any pipeline in the UK marine area, other than those used in relation to oil and gas, carbon capture and storage, require a licence.
In certain circumstances emergency inspection and repair works to any cable or pipeline may be exempt from requiring a marine licence.
MMO defines “emergency” as imminent risk to human health, property or the environment.
Oil and gas and carbon capture and storage
If you are exploring for, or producing, oil and gas you do not need a licence if you are:
- searching for and getting petroleum
- constructing or maintaining an energy pipeline
- establishing or maintaining an offshore energy installation
- unloading, storing and recovering gas
- storing carbon dioxide
These activities are regulated under the Petroleum Act 1998
Activities within the UK marine area that require a permit under the Offshore Chemicals Regulations 2002 and the Offshore Petroleum Activities (Oil Pollution Prevention and Control) Regulations 2005 are exempt from requiring a marine licence.
Published: 2 October 2014
Updated: 11 July 2017
- Updated to reflect new self-service approach to marine licensing
- Included links to the specific guidance around exemptions
- edited content to reflect additional exempted activities guidance
- Approved list of tracers, conditions and best practice text and PDF added
- Link added: Maintenance dredge protocol
- Navigational dredging text updated
- Information on pontoons and aquaculture added
- First published.