Today, World Oceans Day, sees the launch of the Benyon Review of Highly Protected Marine Areas which concludes that there is a need for such areas because England’s seas are not in a healthy state and damaging activities go on even within the existing protected area network. The report says HPMAs are essential for marine protection and recovery and that a minimum of five new pilot sites should be established to provide total protection from extractive and other damaging uses – including angling and commercial fishing – within their boundaries. These “whole site” protected areas, the review says, should be agreed in partnership with sea users.
Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) welcomes the recommendations of the Review and would like to propose that one of the first pilot sites should be at Wembury Bay, near the pioneering Plymouth Sound National Marine Park. Wembury Bay provides an opportunity to engage a city population with an HPMA and is one of a handful of sites well positioned to reconnect the nation with the sea. The Benyon review heard evidence supporting an HPMA at Wembury, which is located near the city of Plymouth, and Plymouth City Council is already conducting a feasibility study on what can be achieved within the national marine park in its first five years. A successful pilot site, agreed on by consensus with all users of the sea and monitored by the city’s marine research institutions, would create a precedent that national parks in the sea, as they do on land, will help to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of our coastline and waters. It would be a matter of pride for Plymouth and its public.
BLUE’s Executive Director, Charles Clover, said: “This is a timely and important report but it is disappointing that that the panel could not finish the job they were asked to do, given that the panel was convened for a year, most of it before COVID 19 struck. We know the benefits HPMAs bring: the panel will have a good idea by now where they should be. So why are we still waiting for HPMA pilot sites to be nominated ten years after the Marine and Coastal Access Act introduced powers to create them? It is unclear how these areas will be decided upon now the panel is disbanded and there will be concern that the government is kicking this process into the seaweed. To address this, we challenge ministers to say exactly how they are now going work with stakeholders to identify pilot sites at a range of scales and carry on this momentum towards recovery.”
BLUE also recognises that Lyme Bay fits many of the criteria the report establishes for creating HPMAs within existing protected areas and it was visited by the independent panel. Charles Clover said: “What we said at the time of the Benyon panel’s site visit was that fishermen in the Lyme Bay Fisheries and Conservation Reserve agreed to participate in this highly successful project because they wished to avoid no-take zones, or HPMAs, being imposed upon them. Their wishes should be respected and should not be overturned except by an elected government and in full consultation with them. The inshore fishermen of Lyme Bay, however, do recognise the resounding success of what they have done, in both economic and conservation terms, and we know they would like to extend the existing protection from mobile fishing gears to a far larger area of Lyme Bay and to make their voluntary code of sustainable fishing practices compulsory. So we believe there is a deal to be done with a proactive government, through the siting of an HPMA in full consultation with the fishermen in return for other things they want, avoiding as far as possible the potential downsides of displacement and involving co-management, as recommended by the Benyon review.”
The Benyon Review concludes that despite an existing commitment to a ‘Blue Belt’ which has seen 92,000 sq km of seas protected, some 40 per cent of English seas, the total area of no-take zone within English waters is just 16.4 sq km, which is smaller than the City of Westminster and covers less than 0.01 per cent of waters controlled by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The evidence provided by the HPMA Review confirms that the introduction of HPMAs could lead to a significant boost for marine biodiversity, giving marine life the best possible opportunity to recover and thrive. HPMAs could also bring social and economic benefits to coastal communities through increased tourism and recreation, science and education and positive impacts on human health. The fishing industry could receive long-term benefits from areas where sea life can develop and breed undisturbed.
The chairman of the independent review panel, Richard Benyon, said: “Our review demonstrates that in order to deliver the protections our most threated habitats need, Highly Protected Marine Areas need to be introduced, and I hope that government will engage with local communities and stakeholders to move forward plans to designate these new sites.”
Plymouth’s waters are the most highly designated in the UK: there is the Tamar Valley AONB, SSSIs, SPAs, a European Marine Site and Marine Conservation Zones. Within a stone’s throw of the city can be found dolphins, sunfish, seagrass beds, corals and sea fans and at beaches within the city itself you can turn over stones teeming with marine life. All of this life and clean water is directly accessible to a city of 280,000 people. The waters around Plymouth provide unparalleled recreational, health, wellbeing and educational opportunities.
Wembury Bay is home to complex and extensive marine life, with slate reefs, wave-cut rock platforms and a rocky shoreline. Wembury has a long history of introducing people to the sea, which is upheld by Wembury Marine Centre through their displays and rockpool safaris. There is a glaring need for this work, because 17 per cent of children in the north of the nearby city of Plymouth have never visited the sea. Part of Plymouth’s reason for declaring a National Marine Park is that 90 per cent of people in England say National Parks are important to them and 96 per cent say they want every child to experience a National Park first hand.
Dr Keith Hiscock, a Plymouth-based marine biologist and author of ‘Exploring Britain’s Hidden World: A Natural History of Seabed Habitats’ said: “The value of HPMAs has been demonstrated worldwide – for scientific study, for conservation of biodiversity, for fish stock enhancement and for enjoying and learning about our fabulous marine life. Locations within the Marine Park offer all of those possibilities protected by an HPMA.”