Science Interviews


Sun, 7th Nov 2010

An English perspective on MPAs

Jen Ashworth, Natural England

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Protecting the seas

A new generation of MPAs is soon to appear around the coast of England. We find out about some of the species and habitats that will be protected and how members of the public are getting involved.

Jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis)

Find out more

Natural England and the marine realm

Marine Conservation Zone interactive marine map


Jen – Along with many other countries, the UK has signed up to international agreements to create a network of Marine Protected Areas by 2012.

In England’s inshore waters we already have 55 Marine Protected Areas designated under European legislation and these are designed to protect habitats and species of European importance that are thought to be particularly special.

These are things such as reefs, sandbanks, intertidal mudflats, also lamprey, seals, and also a wide range of marine sea birds.

In 2009, the UK government enacted the Marine and Coastal Access Act and that gives us the tools to create new national marine protected areas known as Marine Conservation Zones.

Within these new national marine protected areas, we’re going to be able to protect a much wider range of habitats and species and really look at all the exciting wildlife in our seas. For example we want to try and protect habitats such as seagrass beds, coastal saltmarsh, also species such as seahorses, eels, the pink seafan and the sunset cup coral. 

Helen – Well, I guess it’s easy to see how marine protected areas will work for areas of fixed habitat like seagrass beds and things like that as well as these species that stick themselves to the seabed like pink sea fans. But what about the more mobile species – do marine protected areas work for them as well?

Jen – It’s not a simply yes/no answer. If we wanted to protect those species such a cod or herring or something like the common skate, we’d need really large marine protected areas and those aren’t necessarily practical.

What you can do, however, is protect key areas important for life history stages. SO for example areas where these species spawn, or nursery areas where we can protect the juveniles. So the marine protected areas can play a role in looking after these species.

Helen – There’s quite a varied language for marine conservation when we’re talking about these sort of protected areas. We’ve got marine parks, marine reserves, no take zones, things like that. Are these really just variations on a theme or are there actually some important differences between all these different terms?Common brittlestars

Jen – Well, just like there’s different terms for protected areas on land, such as national parks or nature reserves, it’s the same in the sea. 

We tend to use marine protected areas as the umbrella term for all nature conservation designations in our seas. There’s actually a global classification that’s been created by the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and that ranges from strict nature reserves where almost no activities are allowed to managed resource protected areas where your aim is for the sustainable use of marine resources.

Helen – Fantastic. So we can carry on talking about marine protected areas as a kind of general term. And I guess, once you’ve decided what you want to protect, you’ve got all these wonderful species in England, how do you go about decided where those MPAs should be and how big they should be, how many you need and so on?

Jen – Well, those are really key questions that we’ve been facing, Helen. And we have a series of network design principles that we’re using in England and surrounding offshore waters to identify marine protected areas.

The answers are usually part science and part policy. And it’s Natural England’s role, along with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, just to focus on the science of those.

So for example, Natural England’s undertaken research to look at how big a protected area might need to be to protect a population of animals or plants and also how far apart marine protected areas should be in order to maximise connections between them. How many replicates, how many different protected areas of the same habitat you want to have just in case something happened, a disaster happened to those areas.

Helen – And how is the science of marine protected areas? It’s often said that we know much more about natural systems on land than we do on land than in the sea, which makes sense because we live on land. But do we have enough information to feed into these models of how we’re going to make protected areas in the sea?

Jen – That’s a good question and one of the principles we’re using is that you should use the best available evidence that you have. We’ve been undertaking research within Natural England to help answer the various science questions. 

But also the Government, the Department for Food and Rural Affairs, Defra, have run a big project trying to create new habitat maps, new maps of distributions of species, and other habitats to give us even better information. And the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, who are our partners, have also been creating new habitat maps and undertaking new science as well.

Helen – So we’re not just waiting for that information, we’re bringing it together and using what we’ve got to get these protected areas really happening now?

Jen – Yes, we can always collect new and better information but at some point we have to make the decision to go ahead and look after our marine environment on the best available information we have at the time.

Helen – For the marine protected areas in England, the rather exciting aspect to all this is that you’re actually asking members of the public to help you decide where these MPAs are going to be. Now, how does that work and what are the benefits of what I guess we call a “bottom-up” approach to conservation?

Jen – Well, this bottom-up approach is being used to identify the new national marine protected areas – the Marine Conservation Zones.

We think it’s really important to ask people who use to sea, where they want to see protected and give them a say in the decisions that are being made.

This process worked really well in California, and we wanted to use something similar in England.

Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee set up the Marine Conservation Zone Project to do just this. Within that there are four regional projects around the coasts of England whose task it is to involve stakeholders, people who use the sea, such as fishermen, wind farm companies, oil and gas, and also people who use it for recreation such as divers, snorkelers, sea kayakers, sea anglers, to tell us where they think they’d like protected areas to be and where they’d not like them to be.

And we think this is the first time this engagement with and involving people has been done on such a large scale. By involving people from the beginning, you can try and minimise the impacts on their livelihoods or their business.

You can also increase compliance, if people have consensus about where they want the protected areas to be, it’s more likely that those MPAs are going to be successful.

We can also access a wider range of information. People who use the sea, know a lot about the sea, and by gathering that information it allows people to make better decisions.

Helen – Lots of exciting stuff going on in marine protection in England. How do these plans fit into a slightly wider scheme, I guess we’ve got to fit this within what’s going on in other parts of the oceans nearby in Europe.

Jen – Yes, well the marine protected areas being identified in England contribute to a UK network of marine protected areas, along with other marine protected areas from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and offshore waters.

Then the UK will contribute to better marine conservation in Europe. For example, there’s various bits of European legislation that all European countries with a sea area are implementing.

We have the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives that create marine protected areas of European importance.

And we also have the new Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which gives a great opportunity to get all Europe’s seas in a good environmental status by 2020.


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