Will ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’ be introduced to the Solent?
When Marine Conservation Zones and Marine Protected Areas (MCZs & MPAs) were first introduced under the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009), there was a requirement to designate scientific control areas within each bio-geographical area. Termed “Reference Areas”, these zones were designed to represent the ecologically fittest examples of each vulnerable species or habitat, listed as “threatened or declining” by the OSPAR Commission* (see below) and to provide a baseline example of what could be achieved in a specific geographical area. However, as virtually no habitats remain untouched or unchanged by man within our busy North Eastern Atlantic coasts and seas, the designation of Reference Areas was considered impractical. The project needed rethinking.
To ensure the integrity of the MCZ/MPA project, there remained the practical need to provide the scientific community with a network of control habitats. An independent review, chaired by the former Defra fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, recently studied the issue. The Benyon Review was published on 8th June 2020, and can be found on http://www.gov.uk.
In brief, the Benyon Review recommends the introduction to English waters of new conservation areas called Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs). They would be designed to meet the difficulties of providing higher levels of protection for vulnerable habitats and species under the complex and pressurised conditions of our modern coastal regions. Regulation is likely, for example, to involve the disallowance of commercial fishing, construction, dredging, sewage discharges, dumping, littering, anchoring and other activities incompatible with habitat health and recovery. HPMAs would not be total no-go areas so non-damaging levels of activity and recreation such as canoeing, or dinghy sailing would be allowed where appropriate.
As with other Marine Protected Areas, HPMAs would be designated on ecological principles and would be intended to assist in the recovery of marine ecosystems in English waters, allowing vulnerable habitats such as seagrass and maerl beds to flourish undisturbed. An ecologically healthy HPMA could provide nurseries for young fish and a safe haven for other marine species, creating a reservoir of species which would seed the locality, while increasing biodiversity and enriching local fisheries.
Should HPMAs be designated, the need for compliance with higher level of management, regulation and enforcement would require early and regular engagement with stakeholders, hopefully resulting in voluntary approaches and codes of conduct. It would also require commitment and financial support from the government. The review panel has recommended that pilot sites should be introduced, covering a range of different marine environments, both inshore and offshore and geographically spaced. It is
estimated that five pilot sites will be required to fulfil these requirements. It is possible that one may be in Solent waters.
*OSPAR is the UN Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic. It is the mechanism by which 15 governments (including the UK), and the EU co-operate to protect the marine environment of the North East Atlantic. It is worth looking at their website:- http://www.ospar.org