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Highly Protected Marine Areas

The UK government has committed to identify and designate pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) in English waters by the end of 2022. Defra, JNCC, Natural England, Cefas, the Marine Management Organisation, the Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, and the Environment Agency will work together, with stakeholders, to identify potential pilot sites.


Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) are areas of the sea designated for the protection and recovery of marine ecosystems. They prohibit extractive, destructive, and depositional uses, allowing only non-damaging levels of other activities to the extent permitted by international law.

By setting aside some areas of sea with high levels of protection, HPMAs will allow nature to recover to a more natural state, allowing ecosystems to thrive. Their key purpose is biodiversity recovery.

Government recently responded to the recommendations of the Benyon Review and committed to designate a number of pilot HPMAs in 2022 in English waters.  Government will use powers under the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) to bring forward pilot HPMAs.

During this pilot phase of HPMAs we aim to improve our understanding of:

  • how the marine ecosystem will recover in the absence of direct human pressures;
  • how best to monitor and manage HPMAs;
  • the suitability of the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) for the designation of HPMAs; and
  • the effects of HPMAs on sea users and coastal communities. This will include understanding any displacement of fishing effort at a site level and how we can best improve our understanding of this in the future.


How we will identify pilot HPMAs

Government will identify pilot HPMAs based on ecological, social and economic criteria, to select sites that provide the maximum biodiversity benefits while seeking to also maximise associated benefits and minimise impacts to sea users.

Pilot HPMAs may be inside or outside of the existing MPA network, in inshore and offshore areas, recognising that HPMAs must be in the locations best able to deliver protection and recovery.

Defra has asked JNCC and Natural England, working with Cefas, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), the Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, and the Environment Agency, to identify potential locations for pilot HPMAs. Third parties may also propose locations for consideration as pilot HPMAs to JNCC and Natural England based on ecological criteria.


Choosing locations with ecological value

JNCC and Natural England, along with Cefas, have developed ecological criteria to start selecting potential HPMA locations. These criteria are based on the principles outlined in the Benyon Review and are provided in the table below:

Ecological principle

Selection criteria

1: Ecological importance

1a.  The location has, or has had, relatively higher levels of biological diversity.

1b.  The location is known to contain multiple species and/or habitats of national, regional or global importance, or of regional distinctiveness.

1c.  The location is of importance to the key life cycle stages and/or behaviours of marine species.

2: Naturalness, sensitivity and potential to recover

2a.  The location represents a relatively natural ecosystem.

2b.  The location represents a relatively degraded ecosystem.

3: Ecosystem services

3a.  The location includes habitats considered to be of importance to the long-term storage of carbon.

3b.  The location is of importance to the key life cycle stages of commercially important marine species.

3c.  The location includes, or supports, habitats that are important in the provision of flood/erosion protection.

Natural England and JNCC will work to identify locations that meet these ecological criteria, ensuring that there is a range of inshore and offshore locations in different regional seas.


Minimising social and economic impact

After considering third-party proposals, alongside areas they identify, Natural England and JNCC will develop an initial list of potential sites in September 2021. Defra and the MMO will then apply social and economic criteria to help narrow down the list. This will include, but is not limited to, understanding what economic activity occurs in potential sites and the scale and importance of that activity and site to local communities.

Defra will publish the social and economic criteria in summer 2021, after consulting stakeholders. This will include information on how stakeholders can contribute to gathering and assessing evidence on the social and economic criteria.


The third-party proposals process

JNCC and Natural England are inviting stakeholders to propose locations that meet the ecological criteria. To support this, JNCC and Natural England have produced third-party proposals submission guidance and an associated template. The privacy notice informs you on which information is collected and how long it will be retained.

Submissions should be emailed to no later than midnight on 31 August 2021. Please include 'pilot HPMA proposal' in the subject line when making your submission, or if you have an enquiry in the lead up to the submission deadline then please include in the subject line 'pilot HPMA proposal'.

Government are designating HPMAs for the protection and recovery of the sea. In piloting the process to designate HPMAs, we are asking third parties to avoid proposing locations with industrial physical structures or consented activities that are unable to adapt to the location of a HPMA.


Shortlisting potential sites and public consultation

The results of this work will be used to recommend a shortlist of proposed HPMAs to the Defra Secretary of State by the end of 2021. Defra will publish detail on how the proposed HPMAs meet the criteria and why they have been shortlisted, drawing on best available evidence.

Consultation on proposed HPMAs will open in Spring 2022. Additional evidence gathering will also occur throughout 2022 to ensure that we use the best available evidence. This will include site-specific engagement with local stakeholders to collect further evidence on the social and economic criteria. Consultation responses and any additional evidence will be analysed to provide an up to date assessment for each proposed HPMA before Ministers decide which sites to designate.


Roles of Defra and its Arms-Length Bodies

Defra has overall responsibility for the selection and designation of HPMAs. Defra Ministers will decide which proposed HPMAs to consult on and designate. JNCC and Natural England will lead on developing the ecological criteria, with support from Cefas, and also the third-party proposal process and identification of potential sites against these criteria. Defra and the MMO, with input from the Association of IFCAs, will lead on developing social and economic principles and criteria. Defra, MMO and the Association of IFCAs will work together on local stakeholder engagement and the provision of data, which will allow the identification of proposed HPMAs that minimise social and economic effects.


The wider process

The process for identifying potential pilot HPMAs up until the point of public consultation is shown in the figure.

Flowchart showing key stages in the pilot HPMA selection process. These involve the development of social and economic criteria, recommendation of a shortlist of sites, consultation of HPMAs, and additional evidence gathering on ecological, social and economic criteria.


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