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The Lyme Bay Marine Protected Area (MPA) was designated in 2008, with a statutory instrument implemented to protect around 200 sq km of the seabed from bottom towed fishing gear. 
Ever since, the University has been working with fishing communities along this stretch of the Devon and Dorset coastline to monitor its effects.
Our study remains the longest ecological dataset that is integrated with socio-economic research on MPAs and is recognised as the UK’s best example of a long-term MPA monitoring study.
It now forms a national blueprint for how to support fishing communities while meeting international conservation goals.
The research has provided foundational evidence for the UK Government’s Whole Site Approach, enabling policy development for the ‘recovery’ and ‘renewal’ of marine habitats with potential for linked social and economic benefits. The Whole Site Approach is an ambition of the UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and recognised as integral to sustainable fisheries management.
Long-term interdisciplinary research has led to greater protection of the marine environment; a strengthened evidence base for conservation; new and ambitious marine policy, economic and wellbeing benefits for local communities; and enabled a cultural shift towards fisher-science partnerships, heralded as a vital flagship for marine conservation.

These projects have been supported by a number of funding bodies and charities

Emma Sheehan

The history of the Lyme Bay Project

Written in 2018, this article reports on a decade of research and observation into how the natural environment recovers from the effects of commercial bottom towed fishing.

See how our research is influencing regional and national policies

A shining example of climate action

The University's ongoing work in Lyme Bay has been selected to feature in Universities UK's 2022 MadeAtUni campaign, focused around Climate Action.
The campaign aims to show how UK universities are creating bold, innovative, and lasting changes to the world around us on a local, national, and global scale. It also highlights how universities are working closely with their local communities, businesses, charities and policymakers to urgently develop climate solutions that benefit us all and generations to come.
MadeAtUni Climate Action

See some of our research in action

Timeline – how our research and activities have evolved since 2008


With 200 sq km protected from bottom towed fishing gear, the University of Plymouth forms a consortium with the Marine Biological Association and Plymouth Marine Laboratory to undertake an interdisciplinary study about the recovery of the Lyme Bay reefs. It also begins its first monitoring towed video survey.


An annual baited video survey is commenced to complement the towed video survey, ensuring that shy and cryptic species resident in Lyme Bay are also counted. The Lyme Bay project also features for the first time on the BBC’s Countryfile.


A research paper outlining the methods being used in monitoring Lyme Bay is published in PLOS One, but there are still no detectable signs of seabed recovery.


Researchers start to see the first signs of noticeable recovery. Significantly more sponges and ross corals are observed, and reef-associated species are observed for the first time growing from sediment habitats, which raises alarms about feature-based management. There is an explosion of small black sea cucumbers and the first sightings of thornback rays and greater pipefish.


Tooni Mahto, from the BBC's Oceans series, joins researchers on one of their monitoring expeditions in Lyme Bay, and researchers and communities begin to work with the Blue Marine Foundation.


The first research paper detailing Lyme Bay reef recovery is published in PLOS One, at the same time as Dr Adam Rees begins his PhD working with the Blue Marine Foundation and local fishers to study the impacts of the potting industry. Important papers regarding site versus feature based management, and the sediment veneer reef associated species, are published in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Researchers also get their first sighting of a sea mouse.


The team receives significant funding to carry out an emergency survey following a tumultuous series of winter storms, and it reveals significant reductions in species diversity and abundance. Large numbers of sea fangles are also washed up on Chesil Beach.


There is a second appearance for the team on the BBC’s Countryfile, with Adam Rees working alongside presenter Tom Heap.


Researchers see huge numbers of juvenile pink sea fans returning to the seabed. They also record their first sightings of a monkfish and a ling.


The team is award funding for the RETURN project, which allows them to continue Lyme Bay long-term monitoring for more years. They also record sightings of common dolphins on their first day of annual surveys.


Harnessing the successes in Lyme Bay, funding is awarded by the Blue Marine Foundation which aims to identify the tools through which fishermen across the country can secure a sustainable income while endeavouring to meet national and international conservation goals.


A major report funded by Defra and the Blue Marine Foundation shows that restricting the amount of inshore potting for crab and lobster within marine protected areas (MPAs) can generate a “win-win” for both fishermen and the marine environment. Work also begins on the ROPE project, using acoustic tracking technology to explore the importance of offshore aquaculture and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to commercially important species.


The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns pose a number of challenges for researchers, but the team still successfully carries out its annual monitoring which ensured there was no gap into the continuous dataset. The work in Lyme Bay also featured as a case study in a publication in the Marine Policy journal, in which it was cited as “the only socio-economic evaluation of an MPA that links socio-economic outcomes with ecological recovery".


The team is awarded funding to lead the €4million FISH-INTEL project, which will use cutting edge technology to enhance the habitats of key fish species on both sides of the English Channel. It is also prolific year for research publications with a paper on pot fishing published in the high impact journal Scientific Reports. There is also a paper highlighting the seabed’s resilience in the face of extreme storms, which is published in August in Frontiers in Marine Science. And just two weeks later, there is an article in the Journal of Applied Ecology which shows Marine Protected Area status can boost fish populations by almost 400%.

Research publications based on our work in Lyme Bay


Davies BFR, Holmes LA, Bicknell A, Attrill MJ, Sheehan EV (2021) A Decade Implementing Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management Improves Diversity of Taxa and Traits Within a Marine Protected Area in the UK. Diversity and Distributions. 00, 1-16.

Davies BFR, Holmes LA, Rees A, Attrill MJ, Cartwright A & Sheehan EV (2021). Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management Works – how switching from mobile to static fishing gear improves populations of fished and non-fished species inside a Marine Protected Area. Journal of Applied Ecology.

Sheehan EV, Holmes LA, Davies BFR, Cartwright A, Rees A, Attrill MJ (2021) Rewilding of Protected Areas Enhances Resilience of Marine Ecosystems to Extreme Climatic Events. Frontiers in Marine Science.

Rees A, Sheehan EV, Attrill, MJ (2021) Optimal fishing effort benefits fisheries and conservation. Scientific Reports.

Rees SE, Ashley M, Evans L, Mangi S, Sheehan EV, Mullier T, Rees A, Attrill MJ (2021) An evaluation of the social and economic impact of a Marine Protected Area on commercial fisheries. Fisheries Research 235: 105819.


Morgan A, Sheehan EV, Rees A, Cartwright A (2020) Towards a Marine Socio-ecology of Learning in the South West of England. In: Pontius J., Mueller M., Greenwood D. (eds) Place-based Learning for the Plate. Environmental Discourses in Science Education, vol 6. Springer, Cham.

Rees SE, Sheehan EV, Stewart BD, Clark R, Appleby T, Attrill MJ, Jones PJS, Johnson D, Bradshaw N, Pittman S, Oates J, Solandt J-L (2020) Emerging themes to support ambitious UK marine biodiversity conservation. Marine Policy 117: 103864.

Davies BFR, Attrill MJ, Holmes LA, Rees A, Witt MJ, Sheehan EV (2020) Acoustic Complexity Index to assess benthic biodiversity of a partially protected area in the Southwest of the UK. Ecological Indicators 111: 106019. doi:10.1016/j.ecolind.2019.106019

Solandt J-L, Mullier T, Elliot S, Sheehan EV (2020) Managing Marine Protected Areas in Europe: Moving from ‘feature-based’ to ‘whole-site’ management of sites. In Humphreys J & Clark R (eds), Marine Protected Areas: science, policy and management. Elsevier, Ch 9. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-102698-4.00009-5


Davies P, Sheehan EV (2019) Laser chasing behaviour of wild fishes exploited as a tool to compare space use between size, sex and species. Journal of Applied Ichthyology 35: 1225-1233. doi: 10.1111/jai.13982


Rodríguez-Rodríguez D, Rees S, Mannaerts G, Sciberras M, Piried C, Black G, Aulert C, Sheehan EV, Carrierb S, Attrill MJ (2015) Status of the marine protected area network across the English channel (La Manche): Cross-country similarities and differences in MPA designation, management and monitoring. Marine Policy 51: 536–546. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2014.09.021


Stevens TF, Sheehan, Gall SC, Fowell SC, Attrill MJ (2014) Monitoring benthic biodiversity restoration in Lyme Bay marine protected area: Design, sampling and analysis. Marine Policy 45: 310-317. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2013.09.006


Sheehan EV, TF Stevens, SC Gall, SL Cousens, MJ Attrill (2013) Recovery of a Temperate Reef Assemblage in a Marine Protected Area following the Exclusion of Towed Demersal Fishing. PloS ONE 8: e83883. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083883

Sheehan EV, SL Cousens, SJ Nancollas, C Stauss, J Royle, MJ Attrill (2013) Drawing lines at the sand: Evidence for functional vs. visual reef boundaries in temperate Marine Protected Areas. Marine pollution bulletin 76: 194-202. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2013.09.004

Rees SE, Sheehan EV, Jackson EL, Gall SC, Cousens SL, Solandt JL, Boyer M, Attrill MJ (2013) A legal and ecological perspective of ‘site integrity’ to inform policy development and management of Special Areas of Conservation in Europe. Marine pollution bulletin 72:14-21. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2013.03.036

University staff who have been involved in the Lyme Bay project

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