Three new highly protected marine areas in England’s waters have been designated by Defra – great news. Strong scientific evidence shows that creating havens free from the pressures of exploitation boosts the whole ecosystem. Increased fish populations, resilience in the face of the climate crisis, and more secure livelihoods for coastal communities are just a few of the benefits found.
The only downside of Defra’s announcement is that it this isn’t enough. These areas make up make up just 0.4% of English seas: a drop in the ocean.
As the nature and climate crises escalate, our ocean needs to be at the forefront of our minds. Not only do UK seas provide a vital store of ‘blue carbon’, helping to safeguard us from the worst of the climate crisis, they are also home to some of our most spectacular wildlife.
Giving our ocean the time and space to be free from industrial extraction is understandably good for marine wildlife. But just how good is astounding. One analysis, which collated the results of multiple studies, found that the total weight of fish found in highly protected areas was on average 670% higher than surrounding areas.
This abundance has positive knock-on effects. A Hawaiian no-fishing zone increased the catch rate of yellowfin tuna by 54% in nearby waters, for instance. Closer to home, off the island of Arran in Scotland, fishers are catching more and larger lobsters near a protected area which has been acting as a much-needed nursery and haven for wildlife.
As we work towards a network of thriving marine areas that exclude damaging industrial fishing practices, it is essential that the stewardship of local coastal communities is recognised. These marine havens should be designed with their help and knowledge from the very beginning, with transparency and inclusivity at the heart of any decision.
Ensuring a healthy ocean that supports local livelihoods, protects us all from the climate crisis and thrives in its own right is good for everyone. Yet, although our government repeatedly claims to be committed to protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030, less than 1% of UK waters are fully protected.
The three new protected areas are a very welcome step by Defra, but while this announcement is nice news for World Oceans Day, protection of UK marine life must go broader and deeper. We need large-scale, sustained action to restore and safeguard our seas.