Puffins standing by the cliff's edge

Marine Protected Areas

Legislation to develop new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) has seen some progress in recent years, but effective protection at sea is still woefully inadequate to counteract the combined threats of climate change and human activities.

Declining seabird colonies

Three puffins perched on a grassy clifftop, looking out over the sea

Thousands of seabirds have vanished from our cliffs. In Scotland alone, almost half of its breeding seabirds have been lost since the 1980s. Dwindling food supplies, fatal entrapment in fishing equipment and increasing offshore development have all played their part. Invasive species such as rats have decimated numbers on islands which were once a haven for so many species. We have a duty – legally and morally – to protect the areas where these birds breed and forage the food they need to survive.

Protecting UK marine sites

Looking north from Bempton Cliffs

The UK’s protected waters consist of:


  • European Marine Sites (Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation designated under European legislation)
  • Marine Protected Areas under national legislation, including Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ).
  • These MCZ help protect inshore waters around England and Wales and offshore waters around the UK.

Protecting marine sites – Devolved Administrations

A stormy, windswept coastline being battered by waves

The Scottish Government designates protected areas in the offshore waters around Scotland. The Marine (Scotland) Act in 2010 introduced a corresponding designation for safeguarding nationally significant areas in Scottish waters, also called Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Marine Conservation Zones in Northern Irish inshore waters can be designated under the 2013 Northern Ireland Marine Act, but gaps remain and more MCZs must be created to create an ecologically coherent network.

Other protected marine sites

Around 30 terns flying just above the sea's waterline

Other ways of protecting marine areas are:


  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), or
    Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSSIs) in Northern Ireland
  • Ramsar sites which protect wetlands including saltmarsh and sea grass under the international Ramsar Convention
  • In 2021 England and Scotland announced the future introduction of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs). These areas will ban extractive, destructive and depositional uses, allowing only non damaging activities to the extent permitted by international law.

Our Concerns - designation

Guillemot with fish in its beak, perching on a mossy cliff in front of blue seas and skies.

We are pleased new areas are being protected through the HPMAs, but we are concerned social and economic factors are influencing site selection. It is our view that the designation of all MPAs should be decided primarily so they can protect the marine environment and prevent its deterioration. Regarding the wider network, process of implementing and managing MPAs needs to increase at pace to remove the gaps which are reducing the protection of seabirds.

Our Concerns - lack of integration

A little tern in flight with a fish in its beak, in front of a blue sky

Protected areas are not a solution on their own. It is only by integrating MPAs into well planned wider fisheries management that we will succeed in sustaining and/or increasing the fish species our seabirds need to survive and marine biodiversity as a whole.

Our Concerns - lack of monitoring and management

Albatrosses flying around a small fishing vessel

Protected sites across the UK lack effective management and monitoring. Currently, only 10% of our MPAs have fully implemented management methods. Urgent action is needed to ensure all environmentally harmful activities are restricted unless licensed. Any activity should only be permitted if it neither prevents ecosystem recovery nor inhibits progress towards conservation objectives. All other impacts should be minimised.

Our Concerns - remaining gaps

Gannet nesting colony on a rocky clifftop at RSPB Bempton Cliffs Nature Reserve, East Yorkshire

We need to urgently address the gaps in the network, such as the protection of feeding grounds of cliff-nesting seabirds. The last review of the UK’s Special Protection Areas by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee highlighted that a review of provisions in the marine environment was needed for at least 49 species. So far, we haven't seen any progress in this area.