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Marine Protected Areas 

The UK marine environment is protected through a variety of conservation areas, designated under international agreements, and both European and national legislation. 

UK MPAsThe UK MPA network

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) describe a wide range of marine areas which "have some level of restriction of activity to protect living, non-living, cultural and/or historic resources”1. They have been designated primarily to “help conserve or recover nationally significant or representative examples of marine biodiversity, including threatened or declining species and habitats of European and national importance”1. The Government has committed to delivering a Blue Belt of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around our coasts, to protect important species, habitats and geological features2. This Blue Belt of MPAs forms part of an international network of MPAs in the north east Atlantic, contributing to our commitments under OSPAR

OSPAR define an MPA as “an area within the maritime area for which protective, conservation, restorative or precautionary measures, consistent with international law have been instituted for the purpose of protecting and conserving species, habitats, ecosystems or ecological processes of the marine environment.”3  

The UK has committed to establish an ecologically coherent network of well-managed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), that will work together to provide more benefits than each individual area could on its own.

UK commitments to MPAs include in the Marine Policy Statement, Biodiversity 2020, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (or see here, here, or here), the Convention on Biological Diversity (or see further information from the JNCC), the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, and the Oslo and Paris Convention (OSPAR) (or see further information from the JNCC). The UK’s approach to establishing an ecologically coherent network of MPAs in the North East Atlantic, underpinned by OSPAR guidance, is laid out in the Joint Administrations Statement1

The MPA network includes designations under national and European legislation, and international conventions

Designation Abbrev. Jurisdiction Legislation
Marine Conservation Zone MCZ UK Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009
Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area NCMPA UK (Scotland) Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 / Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009
Site of Special Scientific Interest SSSI UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
Area of Special Scientific Interest ASSI UK (N. Ireland) Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002
Special Area of Conservation SAC EU Habitats Directive
Special Protection Area SPA EU Birds Directive
Ramsar site
International Ramsar Convention

These MPA designations currently cover 17% of UK waters2, with 267 OSPAR MPAs, and further sites currently under consultation. For all OSPAR MPAs, including those designated in UK waters, see the OSPAR interactive map. To see whether you’re in an MPA, or where they are you can look on:

You can also search designated sites databases through Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, and Scottish Natural Heritage.

MPA Management 

For most MPAs, current management relating to activities such as recreational boating consists of monitoring. For further information on site-specific management, look at the MMO strategic management table

The RYA position

The RYA supports the UK and Devolved Governments’ shared vision for clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas. We recognise that establishing an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas would contribute towards achieving this vision. The RYA believes that in most cases this vision can be achieved without any adverse effect on either the public right or the safety of navigation for recreational boating. 

We believe there are three key issues that are critical to recreational boating interests in both the designation and management of marine protected areas (MPAs). These are:  

  1. The impact of MPAs on legitimate uses of the sea 
  2. The need for objective and robust evidence in the decision-making process 
  3. The proportionality, enforceability and effectiveness of proposals 
 Find out more about the RYA's Position on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). 

The Future

The RYA has given evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK and the Overseas Territories. The inquiry is examining the Government’s current progress so far on implementing MPAs, and ask what more it needs to do to meet its manifesto commitment. It will follow-up on the recommendations made in its previous reports and it will undertake post-legislative scrutiny of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. This follows on from the previous Committee’s reports into Marine Protected Areas and Sustainability in the UK Overseas Territories

The RYA will continue to be involved in any future designations. 



[1] Joint Administrations Statement. UK Contribution to Ecologically Coherent MPA Network in the North East Atlantic. (2012).

[2] Defra. Marine Conservation Zones: Update. (2016).

[3] OSPAR 2003 Annex 9 A-4.44

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