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Marine protection sites: How did we get here and where do we go from here?

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Jim Robinson, former Marine Project Manager for Natural England, tells us about the expansion of Marine Protected Areas.

The number of English marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs) classified over the last 10 years now encompasses more than 1.25 million hectares of sea and protects 230,000 pairs of breeding seabirds (made up of sixteen species), as well as 80,000 non-breeding seabirds, made up of nine species of divers, seaducks, grebes and gulls. When including all other species within the qualifying seabird and waterbird assemblages of these SPAs, around half a million birds are protected in each season.

How did we get here and where do we go from here?

The United Kingdom supports internationally important populations of breeding seabirds and aggregations of non-breeding waterbirds. In recognition of the need to protect these birds, all breeding seabird colonies that meet the UK SPA selection guidelines, as well as many inshore and estuarine sites of non-breeding waterbirds, have long been classified as SPAs.

Our vital work, which provides scientific advice on designations to government, is ongoing and so we did not stop there. The marine areas of greatest importance to the UK’s breeding seabirds and non-breeding waterbirds are effectively protected as part of the UK’s network of Marine Protected Areas. 

When first reviewing the evidence that we had available to assist in the identification of SPA, it was identified that the principle source of data on at-sea distribution of birds was the European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) database. However, other more specific survey programmes were needed to gather new evidence and address critical gaps, particularly in inshore waters. Boat-based transect surveys of seabird population density were therefore conducted around several seabird colonies to identify sites of significance for seabirds to undertake maintenance behaviours such as socialising and bathing. It also served to determine if these areas were similar between colonies and whether they could therefore be identified as “generic colony extensions” that could be made into a SPA for seabirds.

Visual aerial transect surveys were conducted across more than 40 areas identified as supporting potentially important numbers of inshore waterbirds outside the breeding season.  Land-based and boat-based surveys of the distributions of little terns and boat-based visual tracking of larger terns were used to help identify their most important foraging areas. Digital aerial surveys of the distribution of European shag were also conducted around the Isles of Scilly. Specialized analytical approaches were developed to turn sampled data into maps showing continuous density or usage surfaces. Novel analytical methods then had to be devised to place boundaries on these mapped surfaces and capture only the most important areas within each proposed SPA boundary.

After a huge amount of data was collected and analysed, a network of fourteen marine SPAs were proposed, publicly consulted on, and formally classified in English waters. The Outer Thames Estuary and Liverpool Bay SPAs were first classified in 2010, protecting red-throated divers and common scoters. These SPAs have since been extended. Marine extensions are now in place around the three largest seabird colonies in England - Flamborough and Filey Coast SPA, Farne Islands SPA and Coquet Island SPA. A group of sites protects the foraging areas of breeding tern (e.g. Solent & Dorset Coast SPA); and a SPA from Falmouth Bay to St Austell Bay protects the biggest known non-breeding aggregations of black-throated divers and great northern divers in English waters.  Following recent announcement, the waters around the Isles of Scilly now protect the foraging areas of their breeding gulls and European Shag and today, the Solway Firth SPA has been extended to better protect red-throated diver as well as other species.

It has taken a huge effort to get from where we were back in 2001. Already, the existence of these SPAs is making a tangible difference. The Crown Estate has factored these SPAs into their planning for Round 4 of offshore renewable energy leasing. To take seabird protections into consideration, the bidding areas opened for leasing were amended to remove some areas that were overlapping or in close proximity to these SPAs. This is a win-win outcome. The identification and classification of these internationally important protected sites offers greater protections for our seabirds and improves clarity on boundaries. This in turn assists in the delivery of developments in the marine environment, such as those needed to meet the UK government’s obligations to deliver Net Zero by 2050, in a way that is sustainable.

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  1. Comment by Martin posted on

    Is protection of these areas to be enforced?

    Or does it really take such as Greenpeace to drop Dunkirk-style concrete blocks and big boulders to defend against 'wayward' fishing trawlers gouging out all life and habitat from the sea bed?