Environmental Designations

Information on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in UK waters, and terrestrial designations
Parts of the UK marine environment are protected through a variety of conservation areas, designated under international agreements and national legislation. 

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. In addition, 

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 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 recent Benyon Report may also indicate future UK policy in this area following Brexit. 

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

As of May 2019 approximately 25% of UK waters are currently within MPAs. There are 115 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) with marine components, 109 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) with marine components, 97 Marine Conservation Zones, and 31 Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas4.

The UK has 283 OSPAR MPAs, which can be seen on 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 EnglandNatural Resources Wales, and Scottish Natural Heritage.

MPA Management 

For most MPAs, current management relating to activities such as recreational boating consists of monitoring. More recently, the MMO have begun to develop management measures for non-licensable activities (which includes recreational boating) within MCZs. You can find information on this through Marine Non-Licensable Activity. For further information onsite-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 also commented on the Benyon Report in 2020 and has developed a position statement on proposals for the Studland Bay MCZ in 2020 and 2021 Studland Bay Position Statement

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

[4] http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-4549