A halt on "damaging human activity" could help improve the health of our seas

Damaging human activity should be stopped in some areas of UK waters to improve ocean health, a new report has found.

Flamborough Head is one of only three areas which has a 'no take' zone for fishing.

Following a year long investigation led by former fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, the report, published today on World Ocean Day, recommends identifying new pilot sites where all dredging, fishing, sewage discharge and anchoring would be banned.

If implemented the Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMA) would offer total protection for all species and habitats within their boundary in a bid to return them to pristine condition.

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There are currently only three “no-take zones”, areas where methods of fishing are banned, one of which is at Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire. And while around 40 percent of our seas are already protected, it is only from the most damaging activities, meaning they can only return to what ecologists deem “a favourable condition” but not achieve full recovery.

The main pressures on marine biodiversity were climate change, fishing and marine litter - causing huge damage to bird and fish numbers, seabed habitats and commercial fishing stocks.

The investigation also found increasing the level of protection for some areas would improve biodiversity and help the Government reach its 2050 net-zero carbon commitments.

It concluded HPMAs are essential for marine recovery after a 2019 assessment revealed the UK is failing to meet its targets in 11 out of 15 indicators used to measure the health of our oceans.

The report was commissioned on the same day last year by then-environment secretary, Michael Gove.

The review recommended introducing HMPAs in conjunction with existing protected area networks, and in many cases upgrading existing protected areas to meet the new standards.

It advised each site have specific conservation objectives so its recovery can be monitored, and that a "whole site" approach be taken to protect all species and habitats - including migratory animals.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: "Our 'Blue Belt' of marine protected areas has already raised the bar for marine protection and we are committed to the highest standards of sustainability for our seas that set a gold standard around the world."

He added: "I welcome and agree with the spirit of ambition, which is in line with our 25 Year Environment Plan, and we will now carefully consider the recommendations set out in the review."

The review warned introduction of such sites would need close engagement with local communities and businesses - particularly small scale fisheries who may suffer financially.

It also recommended locating some HPMAs within off-shore wind farms and wreck sites to make them more acceptable to communities who fear their livelihoods might be affected.

Despite the possible economic impact, the review found a very high level of support to respondents to a call for evidence.

More than 90 percent agreed with the statement that HPMAs should be introduced "to look after our seas as part of our duty as stewards of the natural environment".

The review said the introduction of HPMAs would also provide valuable control groups that have not existed previously to help scientists monitor the level of degradation in unprotected areas.

The three no-take zones range in size from 12.1km2 in the Medway Estuary in Kent, 3.2km2 at Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, to just 1km2 at Flamborough Head in Yorkshire.

Joan Edwards, director of marine conservation at The Wildlife Trusts, who was part of the review panel said: "Our seas are in an impoverished state and it's hard for our generation to comprehend how abundant our waters once were. Cod were once as long and wide as humans are tall, and whales, dolphins and basking sharks were many times more common than they are today."

The Wildlife Trusts is calling for the Government to commit to an HPMA delivery plan within the next year.

But the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO) described the review as a "hammer blow" for fishing communities already having to cope with the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainties of the Brexit negotiations.

It said Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) already made up 40 percent of the total area of English waters, with a swathe of 41 sites being designated last year.

The organisation claimed the Benyon Review came off the back of a "sustained campaign" by environmental lobbyists who had described the UK MPA network as "paper parks" which offered little protection. But NFFO said that with a network already totalling 355 sites in UK waters and many only recently designated, marine managers have struggled to conclude planning processes to put the site measures in place. It said that once those measures were in place the UK will "without doubt" have a well protected network.

It also said the review panel had "minimal" engagement with fishing bodies and if the report were taken forward it would further maginalise local fishing communities in any consultation process.

Dale Rodmell, NFFO Assistant Chief Executive said: “The fishing industry is already facing considerable loss of fishing grounds as management measures are steadily introduced in the existing MPA network and as a result of the huge expansion of offshore windfarms and cables infrastructure.

“It is surprising how easily the government appears to be giving way to a conservation lobby rhetoric criticising its own world beating record on MPAs. In the Brexit negotiations it is fighting to secure fairer access to fishery resources for the UK but if it follows the findings of this report it will then be taking away those hard-won opportunities.”