Marine protected areas - practice note

LexisNexis Legal & Professional, LexisNexis UK, LexisPSL, Environment, 1 June 2021

The marine protected areas network in England and Wales provides designated protection for the marine environment and stems from various legislative sources. They include:

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), a statutory adviser to the UK government and devolved administrations, provides an interactive map, which shows all the marine protected areas in UK waters, where users can use a filter function to search by protected features.

Many key sites will benefit from designations under more than one of the legislative frameworks outlined.

Defra has produced best practice guidance for compensatory measures in relations to marine protected areas — providing an approach to strategic compensation, and how net gain and compensation can work together to deliver the best outcomes for the marine environment. The guidance is to provide a framework to enable developers to consider how to reduce and mitigate impacts on the marine environment within marine protected areas and, where this isn’t possible how to deliver compensatory measures; and also to provide clarity on Defra’s expectations to marine industries, advisors and regulators. A consultation on developing this guidance(July — September 2021) has sought views from stakeholders.


Within the OSPAR Convention, MPAs are areas for which protective, conservation, restorative or precautionary measures exist for the purpose of protecting and conserving species, habitats, ecosystems or ecological processes of the marine environment.

For more on the OSPAR Convention generally, see Practice Note: Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR)—snapshot.

At the Ministerial Meeting in Sintra in 1998, OSPAR ministers agreed to promote the establishment of a network of MPAs when the new OSPAR Convention, Annex V was adopted. At the 2003 OSPAR Ministerial Meeting in Bremen, the 'Recommendation 2003/3 on a network of marine protected areas’ (Recommendation 2003/3) was adopted, with the purpose of establishing an ecologically coherent network of MPAs in the North-East Atlantic.

The OSPAR network of MPAs aims to:

  • protect, conserve and restore species, habitats and ecological processes which have been adversely affected by human activities
  • prevent degradation of, and damage to, species, habitats and ecological processes, following the precautionary principle
  • protect and conserve areas that best represent the range of species, habitats and ecological processes in the maritime area

Recommendation 2003/3 applies to contracting parties which are coastal states of the OSPAR Convention maritime area. The maritime area includes:


Article 2.2, OSPAR, Recommendation 2003/3 on a network of marine protected areas

  • Arctic waters
  • Greater North Sea
  • Celtic seas
  • Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast
  • wider Atlantic

These contracting parties have obligations to:


Article 3.1, OSPAR, Recommendation 2003/3 on a network of marine protected areas

  • consider whether any areas within their national jurisdiction justify selection as MPAs under the criteria set out in the Guidelines for the Identification and Selection of Marine Protected Areas in the OSPAR Maritime Area (OSPAR Agreement 2003–17) (identification and selection guidelines)
  • report to the OSPAR Commission the areas that it has selected as components of the OSPAR network of MPAs—contracting parties should use the proforma for compiling the characteristics of a potential MPA in Appendix 4 of the identification and selection guidelines
  • contribute to assessments of areas beyond national jurisdiction in the North-East Atlantic which may justify selection as an OSPAR MPA under the criteria set out in the identification and selection guidelines
  • propose to the OSPAR Commission the areas beyond national jurisdiction that should be selected by the OSPAR Commission as components of the OSPAR network of MPAs

The identification and selection guidelines set out how to identify and select MPAs and include:


Guidelines for the Identification and Selection of Marine Protected Areas in the OSPAR Maritime Area (OSPAR Agreement 2003–17)

  • stage 1—which involves identifying possible sites based on ecological criteria, such as that the area:
    • is important for threatened or declining species and habitats/biotopes
    • is important for other species and habitats/biotopes
    • has ecological significance because, for example, it is an important feeding/breeding/moulting/nesting/juvenile area
    • has high natural biological diversity
    • contains a number of habitat/biotope types, habitat/biotope complexes, species, ecological processes or other natural characteristics that are representative for the OSPAR maritime area as a whole or for its different biogeographic regions and sub-regions
    • contains a high proportion of very sensitive or sensitive habitats/biotopes or species
    • has a high degree of naturalness, with species and habitats/biotope types still in a very natural state as a result of the lack of human-induced disturbance or degradation
  • stage 2—where prioritisation of sites for designation is based on practical considerations, including:
    • the size of the area should be suitable for the particular aim of designating the area, including maintaining its integrity, and should enable the effective management of that area
    • the area has a high potential to return to a more natural state under appropriate management
    • the establishment of the MPA has a comparatively high potential level of support from stakeholders and political acceptability
    • there is a high probability that management measures and the ability to implement them (such as legislation, relevant authorities, funding, and scientific knowledge) will meet the aims for designation
    • it is an area where significant damage by human activity may happen in the short term
    • the area has a high value for scientific research and monitoring
  • use of criteria to meet the aims of the OSPAR network by balancing the ecological considerations with the practical considerations, as highlighted in the table in appendix 3

Where an MPA has been selected, a management plan must be developed in accordance with Article 3.2, Recommendation 2003/3.


Article 3.2, Recommendation 2003/3 on a network of marine protected areas

Where any SPAs or SACs have been designated under the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, contracting parties are to consider reporting that area to the OSPAR Commission as a component of the OSPAR network of MPAs (as if it had been selected as such). Contracting parties should then also provide any reports on the MPAs to the European Commission.


Article 3.3, Recommendation 2003/3 on a network of marine protected areas

Article 5, Recommendation 2003/3 requires OSPAR contracting parties to report by 31 December to the OSPAR Commission on any OSPAR MPAs that they have selected (or deselected) and on any corresponding management plans that they have adopted or substantially amended in that year. Appendix 1 provides the format for reporting on implementation.


Article 5, Appendix 1, Recommendation 2003/3 on a network of marine protected areas

In 2006, the OSPAR Biodiversity Committee agreed that annual reports on the status of the OSPAR network of MPAs should be prepared in the period up to 2010. However, as the target had not been reached in 2010, the OSPAR Ministerial Meeting in Bergen, Norway (20–24 September 2010) adopted a consolidated version of Recommendation 2003/3 (amended by OSPAR Recommendation 2010/2) including renewed targets so that:

  • by 2012 the OSPAR network of MPAs is ecologically coherent, includes sites representative of all biogeographic regions in the OSPAR maritime area, and is consistent with the Convention on Biological Diversity target for effectively conserved marine and coastal ecological regions
  • by 2016 the OSPAR network of MPAs is well managed (ie coherent management measures have been set up and are being implemented for such MPAs that have been designated up to 2010)

At the 2013 OSPAR Commission meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden (24–28 June 2013) OSPAR contracting parties agreed that the Status Report of the OSPAR network of MPAs would be produced every two years. The deadline for new nominations and for reporting was set to 1 October. The most recent Status Report is the OSPAR MPA 2016 Status Report.

OSPAR’s map tool shows where designated MPAs are situated and the key figures resource provides further information on each MPA, including a British key figures tool.

The JNCC has been closely involved with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), in all aspects of OSPAR MPA work in the UK and the UK has currently identified 283 OSPAR MPAs.


JNCC, the UK OSPAR MPA network

In 2012, Defra and the devolved administrations published a statement setting out how the UK would contribute to the establishment of MPAs under the OSPAR Convention.

In January 2020, Natural England launched it’s marine restoration project, Recreation ReMEDIES, with £2.5m of funding, to protect seagrass meadows in five MPAs (the Isles of Scilly, Fal & Helford, Plymouth Sound & Estuaries, Solent Maritime and Essex Estuaries Special Areas of Conservation). For more information see LNB News 29/01/2020 75.

The MMO launched a consultation on proposals to manage activity in England’s four offshore MPAs, in February 2021. Proposals are connected with the government’s plans for a Blue Belt of MPAs around the UK, following Brexit.

Global Ocean Alliance

At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, the UK Prime Minister announced a Global Ocean Alliance of countries to tackle the impacts of increasing sea temperatures, deoxygenation, acidification, habitat loss, overfishing and pollution and safeguard at least 30% of the global ocean in MPAs by 2030. Initially, Belgium, Belize, Costa Rica, Finland, Gabon, Kenya, Nigeria, Palau, Portugal, Seychelles, Sweden and Vanuatu signed up to this 30by30 target. In 2020 Sweden also joined the Alliance. For more information see LNB News 19/02/2020 80.


A SAC is defined in the Habitats Directive, and the regulations implementing the Habitats Directive England and Wales, as 'a site of Community importance designated…through a statutory, administrative and/or contractual act where the necessary conservation measures are applied for the maintenance or restoration, at a favourable conservation status, of the natural habitats and/or the populations of the species for which the site is designated'.


Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, SI 2017/1012, reg 3

Article 6 of Directive 92/43/EC

SACs are designated under the Habitats Directive for habitats listed in Annex I and species (animal and plant) listed in Annex II. In the marine context, these sites must contain qualifying marine habitats or species.


Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, SI 2017/1012, regs 12, 13

Annex I–II of Directive 92/43/EC

In the UK, there are 13 types of marine habitat that are included in the Habitats Directive, Annex I, and which are included as marine because they are covered either continually or intermittently by the sea. These include:


Annex I of Directive 92/43/EC

JNCC, SACs for marine habitats and species

  • sandbanks which are slightly covered by seawater all the time
  • estuaries
  • mudflats and sandflats not covered by seawater at low tide
  • coastal lagoons
  • large shallow inlets and bays
  • reefs
  • submarine structures made by leaking gases
  • submerged or partially submerged sea caves
  • annual vegetation of drift lines
  • salicornia and other annuals colonising mud and sand
  • spartina swards
  • Atlantic seal meadows
  • Mediterranean and thermo-Atlantic halophilous scrubs

There are eight marine species in the UK that are included in the Habitats Directive, Annex II, as implemented in England and Wales. These include:


Annex II of Directive 92/43/EC

JNCC, SACs for marine habitats and species

  • bottlenose dolphin
  • harbour porpoise
  • grey seal
  • common seal
  • sea lamprey
  • allis shad
  • twaite shad
  • otter

In order to qualify as a marine SAC, the species and/or habitat has to fulfil the criteria listed in Annex III, Habitats Directive and the implementing regulations. This includes:


Annex III of Directive 92/43/EC

  • stage 1—assessment at national level of the relative importance of sites for each natural habitat in Annex I and each species in Annex II (including priority natural habitat types and priority species) by considering such matters as:
    • the degree of representativity of the natural habitat type on the site and/or the size and density of the population of the species present on the site in relation to the populations present within national territory
    • the area of the site covered by the natural habitat type in relation to the total area covered by that natural habitat type within national territory and/or the degree of conservation of the features of the habitat which are important for the species concerned and restoration possibilities
    • the degree of conservation of the structure and functions of the natural habitat type concerned and restoration possibilities and/or the degree of isolation of the population present on the site in relation to the natural range of the species
    • a global assessment of the value of the site for conservation of the natural habitat type and/or species concerned
  • stage 2—assessment of the Community importance of the sites included on the national lists, which includes taking the following criteria into account:
    • relative value of the site at national level
    • geographical situation of the site in relation to migration routes of species in Annex II and whether it belongs to a continuous ecosystem situated on both sides of one or more internal Community frontiers
    • total area of the site
    • number of natural habitat types in Annex I and species in Annex II present on the site
    • global ecological value of the site for the biogeographical regions concerned and/or for the whole of the territory, as regards both the characteristic of unique aspect of its features and the way they are combined

SACs (and SPAs—see SPAs below) make up the Natura 2000 network required to be established by Article 3 of the Habitats Directive. Natura 2000 covers almost 6% of the EU’s marine territory.


EC Guidance on Natura 2000

In 2013, the JNCC Committee approved a report on the ‘Progress towards completion of the UK network of marine Special Areas of Conservation for Annex I qualifying features’.

There are 116 SACs with marine components covering approximately 14% of UK waters, situated in both inshore and offshore waters. A list of these SACs with marine components, is available to download from the JNCC website.

For more information on the Habitats Directive and how it is affected by Brexit, see Practice Notes: Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC—snapshot, Designated areas and Implementation of the Habitats Directive in England and Wales.


SPAs are designations under the Birds Directive, which are made to ensure certain species’ habitats, including marine (‘the geographical sea area’), are protected to ensure species survival and reproduction in their area of distribution.

SPAs with marine components are those sites that have qualifying species (ie those listed in the Birds Directive, Annex I) or regularly occurring migratory species that are dependant on the marine environment for all or part of their lifecycle, where these species are found in association with intertidal or subtidal habitats.


Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, SI 2017/1012, reg 15

Article 4(1)–(2) of Directive 2009/147/EC

There are 119 bird species that make significant use of the marine environment around the UK (and Gibraltar).


JNCC, SPAs with marine components

The JNCC provides SPA selection guidelines in the UK. The selection guidelines outline a two-stage process:

  • stage 1—identify areas likely to qualify for SPA status because for example, 1% or more of the population of the species in question uses a particular area regularly
  • stage 2—the areas identified in stage 1 are then considered more closely using one or more of the judgments outlined in stage 2 to select the most suitable areas in number and size for SPA classification, such as population size/density supported at a site, breeding success at a site, species range

The JNCC, in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and the Department for the Environment Northern Ireland (together the ‘Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies’) undertakes survey and data collection work to ascertain where marine birds aggregate in UK waters. Once evidence has been collected, it is the responsibility of the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Body for inshore waters (and the JNCC for offshore waters) to select appropriate areas for SPA marine classification, which then must be subject to public consultation.

The SPA site selection process has been used to designate 123 SPAs with marine components in the UK.

In January 2020, a government press release announced the designation of new and extended SPAs in the Solent and near Middlesborough. These SPAs form part of the UK’s ‘Blue Belt’ of Marine Protected Areas and join 41 new MCZs designated in May 2019. For further information see LNB News 16/01/2020 55.

For more information on the Birds Directive and how it is affected by Brexit, see Practice Notes: Birds Directive 2009/147/EC—snapshot and Designated areas.

For information on marine SPA consultations in England, see Natural England.

For information on SPAs in Wales, see Natural Resources Wales.


MCZs are designations under MCAA 2009, Pt 5, which create protected marine sites, and which complement the other designations available under the marine protected areas network.


Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, s 116

Grounds for designating MCZs are listed in MCAA 2009, s 117 and include where the appropriate authority thinks that it is desirable to do so for the purpose of conserving:


MCAA 2009, s 117

  • marine flora or fauna
  • marine habitats or types of marine habitat
  • features of geological or geomorphological interest

There are 89 MCZs in waters around England—see the JNCC interactive map for details.

For more information, see Practice Note: Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009—snapshot and Marine conservation zones.


SSSIs give legal protection to key sites for wildlife and geology in England and Wales under WCA 1981.


Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Pt II

There are over 4000 SSSIs in England and approximately 80% of these SSSIs are sites that have also been designated as SPAs or SACs, under the Natura 2000 network of protected species.

In Wales, there are more than 1,000 SSSIs.

Natural England and Natural Resources Wales have a duty under WCA 1981 to notify any land which they deem to be ‘of special interest by reason of any of its flora, fauna or geological or physiological features.’ The notification is made to the landowner or occupiers, local planning authorities and the Secretary of State, who can make representations or object to the notification.


WCA 1981, s 28

SSSIs can include marine areas either, ‘any land lying above mean low water mark’ and/or ‘any land covered by estuarial waters’.


WCA 1981, s 28(1A)

Where an SSSI notification relates to ‘land lying above the mean low water mark’ or any ‘land covered by estuarial waters’, it can also include land not falling within either of these terms, such as land lying beyond the low water mark, provided that:


WCA 1981, s 28(1B)

  • such an area adjoins any land lying above mean low water mark or any land covered by estuarial waters (area A), and
  • any one of the following conditions is satisfied:
    • that the flora, fauna or features leading to the notification of area A is or are also present in that area
    • that the notification of area A is by reason of any flora or fauna which are dependent (wholly or in part) on anything which takes place in, or is present in that area
    • that, without the inclusion of that area, the identification of the boundary of the land notified would be impossible or impracticable

SSSIs can be de-designated if the land has been designated as, or part of, a MCZ under MCAA 2009, s 116.


WCA 1981, s 28(1D)

For more information on SSSIs, see Practice Note: Designated areas.


Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance, designated under the Ramsar Convention.

Wetlands are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.


Ramsar Convention

Ramsar sites may also incorporate riparian (banks of a stream, river, pond or watercourse) and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands.

To qualify as a Ramsar Convention site, there are a number of criteria that the site must achieve, including for example that it:

  • contains a representative, rare, or unique example of a natural or near-natural wetland type found within the appropriate biogeographic region
  • supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically-endangered species or threatened ecological communities
  • supports populations of plant and/or animal species important for maintaining the biological diversity of a particular biogeographic region

For more on the criteria, see Practice Note: Ramsar sites.

Many Ramsar Convention sites are also designated as SSSIs, SACs and SPAs.

For UK Ramsar Convention sites, see JNCC UK Ramsar sites.