Five highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) will this week be created by the government to ban all fishing and rewild the sea, the Guardian has learned.
The new generation of marine nature reserves, which are governed by tougher regulations to allow decimated sea life to recover, are being set up close to the coast of Lindisfarne in Northumberland and at Allonby Bay, Cumbria, and at three offshore sites, two in the North Sea and one at Dolphin Head in the Channel.
The five sites in the pilot project are expected to pave the way for more HPMAs to be designated in English waters in 2023. Separately, Scotland is now committed to fully or highly protected areas across 10% of its waters.
Nearly a quarter of Britain’s territorial waters are covered by marine protected areas but conservationists criticize these as “paper parks” because there are so few restrictions on fishing and industrial activities such as offshore windfarm cabling. In 2020, the Guardian revealed how more than 97% of the protected areas were still subjected to dredging and bottom trawling – the most damaging kind of fishing that disrupts and destroys much marine life on the seabed.
HPMAs are effectively “no-take” zones (NTZs) for fishing, and while a few tiny NTZs have already been established including one off Lundy in the Bristol Channel and a community-led one off the Isle of Arran in Scotland, such areas are usually highly controversial for fishers.
But research shows that the Arran NTZ has led to a “spillover” effect with more, larger lobsters caught by fishers close to the restricted area, which acts like a nursery for fast-recovering sea life.
The 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.”
Joan Edwards, the director of policy at the Wildlife Trusts, said: “Protecting large areas of our marine environment is a critical part of addressing the nature and climate crises. We welcome today’s announcement that it will safeguard vital strongholds for wildlife and end damaging activities like bottom trawling in these areas.
“This is, however, just the start. We want to see an entire network of highly protected marine areas to help our ocean habitats recover. As well as providing a much-needed boost to wildlife, fishers will also benefit from the spillover of fish into surrounding waters, helping to restock our depleted seas.”
Kirsten Carter, the principal policy officer (marine) for the RSPB, said the charity supported highly protected sites but they needed to be introduced alongside better fisheries regulations and a holistic plan for all British waters to restore marine life.
“It’s an incredibly positive step in the right direction,” she said. “We urgently need to be protecting more marine wildlife but these areas are still very small and we need to manage and monitor more widely. Still more than 90% of marine protected areas are subject to highly damaging fishing activity.
“While we’ve now got protected sites in the Irish Sea and North Sea there is very much a need for a strategic approach to consider our seas as a whole, looking at how we spatially plan our seas and how we bring in measures to address biodiversity decline and climate mitigation together.”
No HPMAs have yet been established around the south-west coast of England but sources at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs say sites are being considered, with the government keen to balance ecological and social and economic factors.
The five HPMAs cover a mixture of marine habitats including intertidal mudflats, kelp forests and rocky reef habitats further offshore.
The three offshore sites also include “blue carbon” areas, important in the sequestration and storage of atmospheric carbon, which also support a range of mobile species including marine mammals and commercially important fish species.
On Monday, the government was criticized by wildlife campaigners for failing to deliver on a wide range of promised policies to enhance England’s biodiversity, including on nature-friendly farming, the use of peat and pesticides, reintroducing beavers and other lost species, and protecting rare marine life.
Highly protected marine areas in English waters
Along the coast on the English side of the Solway Firth in the Irish Sea, extending from the intertidal zone further offshore.
Habitat: large areas of biogenic reefs, including blue mussels and the best example of Sabellaria reefs in the UK. The proposed site contains a significant store of blue carbon and provides protection from coastal erosion.
species: an important spawning ground for thornback ray and seabass. Pupping ground for harbor porpoise.
Inner Silver Pit
Southern North Sea, approximately 16 miles off the Lincolnshire coast at Theddlethorpe.
Habitat: a unique glacial valley with deep-water geological features (down to nearly 100 meters) in what is a very shallow area of sea.
species: a spawning ground for commercially important fish species, also supporting cetaceans and seabirds.
Thirty-two nautical miles from the Sussex coast in the Channel.
Habitat: seabed supports benthic (bottom-dwelling) communities of species and biogenic reefs, rising from the seabed and created by living organisms such as honeycomb worms or tube worms.
species: productive, fish-rich waters attract seabirds and cetaceans.
North-east of Farnes
Northern North Sea
Habitat: subtidal sediments.
species: the sediments are important for ocean quahogs, sea pen and burrowing megafauna communities, anemones, worms, molluscs, echinoderms and fish. Dolphins, whales and harbor porpoise use the wider region.
Inshore site off the north coast of Northumberland
Habitat: salt marsh, beaches, cliffs, dunes and islands.
species: this region supports important breeding colonies of seabirds such as terns, auks and guillemots, as well as seals.