Marine Protected Areas

Protecting wildlife sites

Marine Protected Areas

Common hermit crab on maerl ©Alexander Mustard/2020VISION

Marine Protected Areas in the UK

Marine Protected Areas are places at sea where environmentally-damaging activities, like certain types of fishing, are restricted. They are a tried and tested means of protecting habitats and wildlife at sea and there are many around the world.

In the UK, there are a few types of Marine Protected Areas. Together these form a chain of protected areas around the coast which, once complete, will protect a wide range of marine wildlife and the special places they call home.

European Marine Sites

European Marine Sites are areas at sea that are designated to protect wildlife and habitats that are important at a European level. They are created under EU Legislation. There are two types of European Marine Site: Special Protection Areas (SPAs) which protect birds and their essential habitats and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) which protect other wildlife and important habitats.

National Sites

Across the UK, each country has the power to create Marine Protected Areas to conserve nationally important wildlife and habitats. These national sites have different names in the devolved nations of the UK.

Marine Conservation Zones (England, Wales, Northern Ireland)

Marine Protected Areas (Scotland)

Take a dive into a Marine Protected Area

The sleek shapes of common dolphins glide through the water, daring you to delve deeper into the secrets of their ocean home. As you slip beneath the waves, a new world emerges from the twilight. A rocky reef, bristling with towers of coral, the spiky shells of urchins and the bright, reaching tentacles of jewel anemones. Colourful wrasses browse the rocky avenues, and in the distance hovers the alien form of a cuttlefish, fins rippling hypnotically as it searches for its next meal. 

The closer you look, the more life you see. Microscopic crustaceans climb the towering anemones, and wonderfully weird sea slugs flow across the reef, far more dazzling than their grey, garden-dwelling cousins. A forest of sea fans sways gently in the current, and as you peer into the delicate tangle of branches you spy the movement of smaller creatures: sea slugs, snails and even an anemone, all unique to the sea fan's intricate canopy.

 

The science of Marine Protected Areas

Protecting special sites at sea is important, but to really bring our seas back to life we need a network of Marine Protected Areas. To achieve better seas for both people and wildlife, our MPA network must protect not just rare and threatened wildlife, but the whole range of ‘typical’ habitats and wildlife found in healthy seas. For us in the UK, this includes habitats like our cold water reefs, seagrass meadows, kelp forests and sandy, gravelly or muddy sea floors.

Designating an MPA is only the first step towards protecting the precious wildlife and habitats within. Active management is required to make sure our MPAs are doing the job for which they were created.

Marine protected areas

Monitoring Marine Protected Areas

Once management measures or plans are in place, monitoring is required to ensure MPAs are effective.

Through The Wildlife Trusts' Shoresearch scheme, hundreds of volunteers are working with us to survey coastal MPAs all around the UK. This scheme, designed together with Natural England, is so robust that the data collected can be used to monitor MPAs to ensure that they are being properly managed.

MPAs have been proven to have a positive effect beyond their boundaries, where thriving wildlife populations spill out into the surrounding (non-protected) sea. In the UK, there is a well-researched example of this around Lundy Island, England’s first Marine Conservation Zone. Here, the lobsters within the MCZ were found to be larger than those in the surrounding area. Over time, the larger lobsters moved out into the non-protected area. This “spillover effect” has been found to benefit fisheries, showing that MPAs are good news for both people and wildlife.