Benyon Review sets out plans for significant strengthening of marine protection in UK waters, as new study highlights how ocean habitats can help boost climate resilience
The government has today published the results of an independent review into UK marine projection, which calls for the creation of new Highly Protected Marine Areas in English waters, and new research that highlights how oceans can play a key role in tackling climate change.
Released to coincide with World Ocean Day, the Benyon Review was undertake by former Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, after it was commissioned last year by then Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
The report proposes a series of measures to build upon the government's existing 'Blue Belt' strategy, which has already seen an area of 92,000 square km protected, equating to around 40 per cent of English seas.
The UK currently has a range of protections in place through a network of 355 Marine Protected Areas, which offer protections for a designated feature or habitat within their boundaries.
But the proposed Highly Protected Marine Areas would go further by taking a 'whole site approach' and only permitting certain activities within their boundaries such as vessel transit, scuba diving, and kayaking. Any activities that could have a damaging effect on habitats or wildlife, including fishing, construction, and dredging would be banned.
The review claims the introduction of such areas could lead to both a significant biodiversity boost for the UK's seas by giving marine life the best chance to recover and thrive, and new opportunities for tourism and recreational activities.
The review also argues that 'blue carbon' habitats should be identified for protection during an HPMA site selection process to help combat climate change.
"The sea has provided food, materials and recreational opportunities for thousands of years," said Benyon. "However, human activities have significantly impacted these habitats and species, which we now know need greater protection. Our review demonstrates that in order to deliver the protections our most threated habitats need, Highly Protected Marine Areas need to be introduced, and I hope that government will engage with local communities and stakeholders to more forward plans to designate these new sites."
The recommendations were broadly welcomed by Environment Secretary George Eustice, who said the government would now "carefully consider" the proposals.
"Our 'Blue Belt' of Marine Protected Areas has already raised the bar for marine protection and we are committed to the highest standards of sustainability for our seas that set a gold standard around the world," he said. "That's why we asked the panel to conduct this review and I am very grateful to them for their work. I welcome and agree with the spirit of ambition, which is in line with our 25 Year Environment Plan, and we will now carefully consider the recommendations set out in the review."
Green groups broadly welcomed the proposals, having in the past warned that the UK's current system of marine protection does not do enough to tackle over-fishing, dredging, and other marine habitat impacts.
Alec Taylor, head of marine policy at WWF and vice chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link Marine Group, urged the government to seize the "unmissable opportunity to deliver a genuine blue recovery".
"Ocean Recovery is an investment in the UK's future, supporting jobs, tackling climate change and restoring nature," he added. "We know this vision is achievable, but only if we take bold and timely action now. We urge the government to bring forward this important review's recommendation without delay."
The report comes on the same day as a separate study from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) on behalf of the government found that over half of the UK's Marine Protected Areas contain habitats vital for the nation's future climate resilience.
The analysis found 43 per cent of MPAs contain habitats such as sand banks, seaweed, and other plant beds that play a role in protecting the coastline from severe weather events. It also found that 29 per cent of MPAs protect habitats such as coastal saltmarshes, seagrasses, salt water reedbeds and muddy habitats, which support the absorption and storage of carbon dioxide.
In addition, study - titled 'Developing the evidence-base to support climate-smart decision making on MPAs' -provides new tools for scientists to measure the impacts of climate change such as increases in sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, ocean heatwaves and rising sea levels on marine sensitive habitats.
"Our Blue Belt of marine protection around our coast is now an area twice the size of England and truly a world-leading level of protection; however there is always more that can be done," said Environment Minister Rebecca Pow. "We have a duty to ensure that our marine life recovers and thrives for future generations."
Separately, the government today announced that seven new countries have joined the UK led Global Ocean Alliance, an initiative aimed at securing protection of 30 per cent of the world's oceans by 2030. There are now a total of 20 countries in the Alliance following today's announcement, which has seen Germany, Italy, Fiji, Cabo Verde, Monaco, Senegal, and Luxemburg join the group.
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