Lyme Bay Marine Protected Area. Credit: Dr Luke Holmes

Lyme Bay Marine Protected Area. Credit: Dr Luke Holmes

Marine scientists from the University of Plymouth have contributed to a major UK government report examining whether and how the strongest protections for areas of sea - known as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) - could be introduced.

Led by former Defra Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, the review highlighted that while 40 per cent of the Secretary of State waters fall within marine protected areas (MPAs), less than 0.01 per cent are fully protected from destructive or extractive human activity.

The review concludes that HPMAs are an essential component of the Marine Protected Areas network, and government should introduce them into Secretary of State waters.

The review cites a number of University projects and publications while members of the Marine Conservation Research Group were asked to give evidence directly to the review panel.

There is a particular focus on the Lyme Bay Marine Protected Area, where University researchers – funded by Defra, Natural England, the European Commission and Blue Marine Foundation– have worked with the local fishing community to assess life on the seabed and economic impacts in the wake of a ban on bottom-towed fishing.

The review also highlights the newly-designated Plymouth Sound National Marine Park, an initiative first mooted by academics in 2012 with the University having a seat on the project board.

It also echoes research published earlier this year, in which a team of marine scientists – led by the Marine Conservation Research Group – called on the Government to increase its ambition to save the oceans by overhauling its approach to marine conservation management.

Dr Sian Rees, lead author on that particular study, said:

“The Government’s recommendation to designate Highly Protected Marine Areas Review represents an increased ambition for ocean conservation that will support action to halt the global decline in marine biodiversity and, more importantly, enable increased security for the lives and livelihoods that depend on healthy marine ecosystems.”

Dr Emma Sheehan, lead of the Lyme Bay Project, added:

“It’s extremely rewarding to know that the research resulting from our Lyme Bay long-term monitoring study, now 12 years old, is informing progressive and essential government policy and management advice. Ultimately, our work will help to fully recover degraded marine habitats and increase sustainable fisheries in our waters.”

This is the latest example of the University contributing to the national and international agenda around marine protected areas.

In early 2018, their whole-site approach to marine conservation received backing from the Department for the Environment, Fishing and Rural Affairs (Defra) through its 25-Year Environment Plan (25YEP).

In a book published in 2019, researchers also outlined the legal tools the UK already has to protect the seabed from damaging activity, and called for MPAs of all seabed types and sizes to restrict trawling and scallop dredging.