Defra is planning to pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas in English waters

Defra is planning to pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas in English waters

Defra is planning to pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) in English waters, as outlined in the UK government’s response to the Benyon Review which was published on World Ocean Day on the 8 June, 2021.

HPMAs are areas of the sea (including the shoreline) that allow the protection and full recovery of marine ecosystems. By setting aside some areas of sea with high levels of protection, the UK government believes that HPMAs will allow nature to fully recover to a more natural state, allowing the ecosystem to thrive. 

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HPMAs will protect all species and habitats and associated ecosystem processes within the site boundary, including the seabed and water column claims Defra.

Defra has reported that it is consulting on 5 candidate sites. The consultation is an opportunity for everyone to provide their views on the candidate HPMAs, including their boundaries, and provide any relevant evidence on possible impacts and benefits.

“We are not seeking views on the definition of HPMAs, says Defra. “Following this consultation, the government intends to designate a number of pilot HPMAs.”

The UK government committed in the 25 Year Plan to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. HPMAs are set to contribute to the government’s vision for ‘clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse ocean and seas’.

The purpose of HPMAs, says Defra, is biodiversity recovery. By setting aside some areas of sea with high levels of protection, HPMAs will allow nature to fully recover to a more natural state, allowing the ecosystem to thrive.

It is believed that HPMAs can act as a nature-based solution to improve the state of our seas, address biodiversity loss, and ensure a more climate resilient marine ecosystem which will deliver benefits for society.

HPMAs have been shown to work in other places around the world.

“Since publishing the government response to the Benyon Review, we have met with a broad range of stakeholders,” says Defra. “We will continue to engage throughout the designation process and beyond into management and evaluation:

  • we invited stakeholders to propose HPMA locations
  • we met with stakeholders to discuss the draft ecological, social and economic criteria and areas of the sea that have been excluded from the site selection process
  • we will gather additional evidence during consultation to ensure that we use the best available evidence to choose which pilot HPMAs to designate. This will include evidence on site acceptability, social and economic impacts and scope for livelihood adaptation
  • we will undertake site-specific engagement with local and national stakeholders during consultation to collect further evidence

“We have identified candidate HPMAs using ecological, social and economic criteria, to select areas that provide the maximum biodiversity and ecosystem benefits while seeking to minimise impacts on sea users.”

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Natural England, along with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), developed ecological criteria to identify potential HPMA locations, and invited stakeholders to submit proposals for HPMAs that met these criteria.

To ensure that pilot HPMAs can deliver full protection and recovery, locations with existing and/or consented physical structures and activities that would ordinarily be prohibited within an HPMA, such as dredging and dumping, were discounted early on in the selection process.

After considering third-party proposals, alongside areas they themselves had identified, Natural England and JNCC developed an initial list of potential areas. Defra then applied social and economic criteria to identify candidate sites. These criteria focused on activities that would be impacted by the candidate HPMAs.

This included, but was not limited to, understanding what UK and non-UK wild capture fishing, recreational angling and anchoring activities were occurring within the location.

Management measures will be needed to further the conservation objective of HPMAs. Pilot HPMAs will be designated as Marine Conservation Zones under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. In line with advice from Natural England and JNCC, it is anticipated that extractive, destructive and depositional activities will be prohibited within each site.

This would include activities such as:

  • commercial and recreational fishing
  • dredging
  • construction
  • anchoring

Non-damaging levels of other activities to the extent permitted by international law are allowed.

Public authorities, including the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authorities (IFCA), will need to ensure they meet the general duties and specific duties in relation to certain decisions that may affect Marine Conservation Zones within the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

Public authorities will have responsibility for ensuring compliance in line with their remit, supported by conservation advice from the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies (SNCBs).

Defra says, “We will be running a consultation to seek views on the 5 candidate HPMAs proposed to be designated as pilot sites in English waters and to gather additional social, economic and ecological evidence to support the decision-making process.

“The HPMA consultation will give all stakeholders the opportunity to share their views and provide evidence on affected activities and inform our final decisions on which sites to designate.

“We are consulting on the following candidate HPMA sites:


  • Allonby Bay (Irish Sea)
  • Lindisfarne (northern North Sea)


  • Dolphin Head (Eastern Channel)
  • Inner Silver Pit South (southern North Sea)
  • north-east of Farnes Deep (northern North Sea)

The consultation will run from 06 July to 28 September 2022. Responses and any additional evidence will be analysed by Defra against ecological, social, and economic criteria (which can be found in the consultation annex B) to provide an up-to-date assessment for each candidate HPMA.

Defra will publish a summary of consultation responses and we will develop a full impact assessment after consultation.

Ministers will then decide which sites to designate and will designate pilot HPMAs within a year of the start of the consultation.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

Highly protected marine areas will offer the highest levels of protection in our seas. They will help a wide range of valuable habitats and species to fully recover, boosting the resilience of our ecosystem and allowing the marine environment to thrive.

“As demands on our oceans increase, it is more important than ever that we take decisive action to safeguard nature whilst ensuring we can continue to meet the sustainable needs of those who rely on our seas.”

Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, said:

“By supporting the full recovery of vital marine ecosystems, Highly Protected Marine Areas will be a critical mechanism to reverse the damage imposed on our ocean and safeguard it for future generations.

“The five candidate sites outlined today present the chance to protect some of our most vulnerable marine wildlife, and I welcome this consultation as we take the next step forward in securing the long-term sustainability of our ocean.”

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Defra planning to pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas in English waters

by editor time to read: 8 min