Marine Protected Areas

Protecting wildlife at sea

Long-snouted seahorse ©Alex Mustard/2020VISION

Looking after our sea life

Our seas and their wildlife are an essential part of our daily lives; providing us with the oxygen for every second breath we take, fish for our plates and magical wild experiences that can stay with us for a lifetime. They are home to around half of all our wildlife, from microscopic creatures to the second largest fish in the world, the basking shark! 

Amphipod on dead man's fingers coral

Amphipod on dead man's fingers coral ©Alexander Mustard/2020VISION

Living Seas

Decades of neglect and overexploitation have left our seas damaged and degraded, but it's not too late to save them. We are working towards Living Seas: seas where species which have declined are becoming common again, with thriving fish stocks and healthy marine habitats.

We believe that each and every one of us, no matter where we live, can help bring our seas back to life. Every year, Wildlife Trusts all around the UK run events to give more people the chance to experience and enjoy our marine wildlife, inspiring people to love and care for our seas in the decades to come.

Underpinning our work to protect wildlife at sea is our new national marine strategy, The Way Back to Living Seas, which revolutionises our approach to marine conservation. In the next five years we have an unprecedented opportunity to improve our seas, by changing how we fish, extract resources and manage development at sea, and by ensuring our seas are protected by a network of Marine Protected Areas. 

Achieving Living Seas will benefit not only our marine wildlife, but the prosperity and wellbeing of the UK as a whole.

Types of Marine Protected Area

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are places at sea where certain damaging activities 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 many different types of Marine Protected Areas. Together these form our MPA Network 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 can have different names in each of 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

Making sure it works

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.