Technical ReportPDF Available

Perspective: What does Brexit mean for UK MPAs?

  • Marine Conservation Society

Abstract and Figures

Brexit may be the single biggest constitutional change that will happen to the UK in its history. The UK government and civil service are still coming to terms with the process of change, the complexity of developing new laws, and the new political horizon of working with our European partners once the UK exits the EU. The environment and MPAs are also in line for change. Indeed, what will become of the UK’s MPA network when over 50% of our sites were set up under EU laws? Designation of the UK’s first large, significant MPAs started because of EU laws drawn from the Bern Convention, an international treaty on protecting wildlife. These EU laws resulted in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for fauna and flora in the UK under the EU Habitats Directive, and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds under the EU Birds Directive. In the marine area, these SACs and SPAs are known collectively as European Marine Sites, or EMSs.
No caption available
Content may be subject to copyright.
Published on MPA News (
Perspective: What does Brexit mean for UK MPAs?
By Jean-Luc Solandt, Bryce Stewart, and Alice Puritz
Editor’s note: Last year, MPA News published a brief article on how the UK’s Brexit vote in June 2016 — in which citizens
chose for the country to exit the European Union — might impact the country’s marine protected areas. The perspective piece
below offers deeper insights on the potential future for UK MPAs. It also demonstrates how change in national governance can
cause an array of follow-on impacts on protected areas.
Jean-Luc Solandt is Principal Specialist, MPAs, for the UK Marine Conservation Society. Bryce Stewart is a Lecturer in the
Environment Department at the University of York (UK). Alice Puritz is a lawyer with ClientEarth, an NGO that applies legal
expertise to conservation issues.
Brexit may be the single biggest constitutional change that will happen to the UK in its history. The UK government and civil
service are still coming to terms with the process of change, the complexity of developing new laws, and the new political
horizon of working with our European partners once the UK exits the EU.
The environment and MPAs are also in line for change. Indeed, what will become of the UK’s MPA network when over 50% of
our sites were set up under EU laws? Designation of the UK’s first large, significant MPAs started because of EU laws drawn
from the Bern Convention, an international treaty on protecting wildlife. These EU laws resulted in Special Areas of
Conservation (SACs) for fauna and flora in the UK under the EU Habitats Directive, and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for
birds under the EU Birds Directive. In the marine area, these SACs and SPAs are known collectively as European Marine
Sites, or EMSs.
How might Brexit affect the UK’s MPAs?
Two things the UK could do with its EMSs are de-designation (ending the sites’ status as protected areas) or re-designation
(changing them to another type of MPA).
Civil servants in the marine program of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have said in
public fora that they do not want to de-designate sites set up under EU laws. These individuals want to ensure this key element
of the MPA network remains in place. European Marine Sites currently cover over 12% of UK seas, so losing these sites would
be catastrophic for our country’s MPA network. These MPAs are also designated in areas of the most important habitats and
species for European biodiversity and wildlife, which are also nationally important. So we believe their continued protection
should be given the highest priority going forward.
The UK government has designated 50 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) since 2013 under the Marine and Coastal Access
Act to protect additional nationally important species and habitats not already protected by European sites. However, the laws
governing MCZs are weaker than those for EMSs. EMS legislation, for example, places protected areas where there are the
most outstanding examples of EU importance, regardless of the presence of current or potential business interests. MCZs do
not have that same siting requirement. And regulations to protect EMSs from damaging activities — including that developers,
fishers, and heavy industries need to show their activities will not have adverse effects on the sites before being allowed to
proceed — are more restrictive than those for MCZs. (Indeed, there is pressure from some commercial groups now to repeal or
amend the UK law that transposes key EU environmental legislation into UK domestic legislation — which could weaken the
relatively strong protections for the UK’s EMS sites.)
So what would this mean for EMSs? One possibility is that they would all be changed into UK sites (MCZs). Given the weaker
protections for MCZs, we would be strongly opposed to this approach. On the contrary, we recommend that once the UK
leaves the EU, we not only keep EMSs as protected areas under UK law but also enhance the current legal protections for
MCZs — making them equivalent to the legal protections currently afforded to EMSs. This would favour environmental
What would losing EU MPAs mean for stakeholders?
The most significant recent progress in UK MPAs has been the ‘revised approach’ to fisheries management in EMSs, initiated
in 2012. This significant policy change, and subsequent development of management measures, has resulted in over 40 local
laws in England and Scotland to ban or restrict trawling and dredging from a large number of coastal EMSs (over 45 sites;
about 6000 km2 of our seas).
These measures could be under threat for two reasons when we leave the EU: (1) as mentioned above, some commercial
stakeholders are calling for the UK legislation that implements EU law to be repealed or amended; and (2) if this happens, the
work that has been invested by regulators, fishers, environmentalists, and central government since 2012 to develop these
MPA management measures, and the local laws that implement them, could also be lost. This would be a tragedy for UK
marine conservation and well-managed inshore fisheries.
If the government wanted to get rid of EMSs, what challenge could be made
by civil society?
With the UK as an EU Member State, protection of key conservation features within EMSs has so far been upheld by the
powerful ‘stick’ of the EU court of justice (ECJ). ECJ fines Member States that have allowed sites to be damaged. Fines of 10s
of thousands of pounds per day have been enough to result in rapid protection measures for places like Strangford Lough in
Northern Ireland. The ECJ has also previously ruled on failings by the UK and other Member States to both designate EMSs
and enact adequate protection measures for them. Such fines tend to focus minds of regulators and governments.
After the UK’s formal exit from the EU (likely to be April 2019), there will be no recourse to an EU court for matters regarding
failure of the UK to protect our European MPAs. These cases have often been initiated by civil society groups (e.g., NGOs)
informing the European Commission of breaches to protection measures within sites. Subsequent threats of legal action and
large fines have pushed the designation of sites and management measures.
How is the full network of UK MPAs progressing?
There has been a delay in designating a third and final tranche of domestic MCZs in UK waters (of up to a further 50 sites)
whilst the UK Government absorbs the implications of Brexit. Defra is one of the smallest UK government departments yet has
the most legislation to consider for keeping or changing under Brexit. So there is a great deal of pressure on the civil service to
come up with a Brexit plan whilst also including consideration of a further round of MCZs. UK government will develop a ‘Great
Repeal Bill’ that should immediately transfer and retain UK laws derived from EU legislation when we leave in April 2019,
including EU-derived MPA legislation. Fisheries are a much bigger political and constitutional headache for Defra in terms of
agreeing to future sharing of quotas, and access of foreign fleets to the UK EEZ.
Given past access of foreign fishers to UK offshore waters, what will happen
to MPAs beyond territorial waters but within the UK EEZ?
A negotiation will need to be undertaken — not only with the EU as an entity but with other Member States individually. In
theory, all options are on the table. The UK could potentially exclude all EU boats from our offshore MPAs or even from the UK
EEZ altogether. However, such a move seems unlikely given it would threaten trading arrangements with the EU, which are
vital to the UK economy. In contrast, there appears to be a stronger chance of foreign fishers being excluded from the UK 6-
12nm zone, where they have had historical access rights under the London Convention (a fisheries agreement that pre-dates
the EU). In some cases, this has led to huge trawlers fishing in the same grounds as small (<10 m) UK inshore fishing boats.
If Scotland leaves the UK but stays in the EU, what would this mean for UK
The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has indicated her desire for a second referendum on Scottish independence,
largely so that Scotland can stay in the EU. Should this come to pass then Scotland would obviously retain its EMSs and
continue to implement its national MPA network, in which fishing is being increasingly well managed. While this situation may
appear to therefore consolidate the UK MPA network overall, it would leave the rest of the UK increasingly isolated in
negotiations with Europe over fisheries and access to offshore MPAs.
For more information:
Jean-Luc Solandt, Marine Conservation Society, UK. Email:
Source URL:
... In somewhat of a contrast to this mood, some eNGOs cautiously welcomed the commitment to sustainability in the TCA and were pleased that a deal had been struck which should prevent unilateral quota setting and subsequent overfishing (Pew 2021). They were also encouraged when the UK Government announced plans to ban bottom trawling in several offshore Marine Protected Areas (Guardian 2021a), a move that would not have been possible before Brexit without agreement from the other relevant EU states (Solandt et al. 2017). ...
Full-text available
Fisheries management has been a strongly contested aspect of the UK’s position in the EU since UK accession, with the fishing industry frequently questioning both the efficacy and fairness of arrangements. During the campaign for UK exit (Brexit) from the EU, and the subsequent negotiations of a new legal and political relationship from 2016 to 2020, senior UK political leaders strongly committed to deliver radically changed fisheries arrangements with respect to the three central issues: regulatory autonomy; access to waters; and quota shares, all while maintaining minimal trade impacts. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement diverges from this Brexit rhetoric. While some regulatory independence has been achieved, UK fisheries management continues in a state of interdependence and significant EU access to UK waters remains, even in the 6–12 nautical mile territorial waters. While the UK gained an increase in quota shares which is estimated to reach 107 thousand tonnes of landed weight annually by 2025 (an increase of 21.3% for quota species and 16.9% for all species, or 17.8% and 12.4% by value), this pales in comparison to the UK Government’s stated ambitions for zonal attachment (achieving 68% by weight and by value - a potential shortfall of 229,000 tonnes / £281 million). This modest change explains the negative reaction of the fishing industry and claims of betrayal in the face of the UK Government’s announcement of a “successful” deal. The stark delivery gap between rhetoric and reality means the UK government faces a challenging start to managing fisheries outside of the Common Fisheries Policy.
... Management of UK seas is improving, but still has a long way to go before we will truly have an ecologically coherent network of MPAs. On the policy front, UK marine management faces further challenges due to the UK leaving the EU (Brexit; Solandt et al., 2017;Stewart and O'Leary, 2017; and of course, anthropogenic ocean warming and acidification are increasingly affecting the marine ecosystems themselves. Howard Wood, one of the founders of COAST, has now become a Global Climate Action summit 'Climate Trailblazer' 12 , in order to turn his hand to these even bigger issues. ...
Full-text available
The Firth of Clyde, on the west coast of Scotland, was once one of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe. However, successive decades of poor management and overfishing led to a dramatic loss of biodiversity and the collapse of finfish fisheries. In response, concerned local residents on the Isle of Arran, which lies in the middle of the Clyde, formed the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) in 1995. After 13 years of campaigning, a small (2.67 km2) area in Lamlash Bay became Scotland’s first no-take zone (NTZ) in 2008, and only the second in the UK. Since protection, biodiversity has increased substantially, along with the size, age and density of commercially important species such as the king scallop, Pecten maximus, and the European lobster, Homarus gammarus. Arguably more important, however, is the influence the Lamlash Bay NTZ and COAST have had on UK marine protection in general. Most notably, detailed research has created a case study that clearly demonstrates the benefits of protection in an area where little such evidence is available. This case has been used repeatedly to support efforts for increased protection of UK waters to help rebuild marine ecosystems and enhance their resilience in an uncertain future. In Scotland specifically, lobbying by COAST led to the designation of a much larger marine protected area (MPA, >250 km2) around the south of Arran, one of 30 new MPAs in the country. Evidence from Lamlash Bay has supported development of strong protection for these MPAs, seeing off lobbyist efforts to weaken management. Arran’s conservation success has been recognized internationally and is inspiring greater involvement of local communities around the UK, and further afield, to take the destiny of their coastal waters into their own hands. Successful marine conservation begins at home.
... More recently, in 2016, a policy window has opened in response to the UK's departure from the EU. Whilst there are diverging views on the positives and negatives of the UK's departure from the EU for marine biodiversity protection [40,133], the bottom line is that the UK's departure from the EU has not just the potential to change, in midstream, the direction of travel of much UK legislation that underpins the conservation of marine ecosystems, but is also set to replace an established constitutional framework around UK marine environmental law, with a devolved system of governance, which may result in differing cross-border strategic objectives for conservation [41]. This large-scale legal and regulatory change resulting from the potential EU departure has been met with a raft of policy reform including the release of the Government's A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment (25YEP) [37], the advent of a new UK Marine Strategy [42], a Fisheries Bill, and an Environment Bill which was introduced to UK parliament in January 2020. ...
Full-text available
Healthy marine ecosystems provide a wide range of resources and services that support life on Earth and contribute to human wellbeing. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are accepted as an important tool for the restoration and maintenance of marine ecosystem structure, function, health and ecosystem integrity through the conservation of significant species, habitats, or entire ecosystems. In recent years there has been a rapid expansion in the area of ocean designated as an MPA. Despite this progress in spatial protection targets and the progressive knowledge of the essential interdependence between the human and the ocean system, marine biodiversity continues to decline, placing in jeopardy the range of ecosystem services benefits humans rely on. There is a need to address this shortcoming. Ambitious marine conservation: 1. Requires a shift from managing individual marine features within MPAs to whole-sites to enable repair and renewal of marine systems; 2. Reflects an ambition for sustainable livelihoods by fully integrating fisheries management with conservation (Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management) as the two are critically interdependent; 3. Establishes a world class and cost effective ecological and socio-economic monitoring and evaluation framework that includes the use of controls and sentinel sites to improve sustainability in marine management; and 4. Challenges policy makers and practitioners to be progressive by integrating MPAs into the wider seascape as critical functional components rather than a competing interest and move beyond MPAs as the only tool to underpin the benefits derived from marine ecosystems by identifying other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) to establish synergies with wider governance frameworks.
... 40 Concern has therefore been raised that the health of the wider marine environment might degrade should the UK no longer be required to comply with current and future standards. 41 Ensuring sustainability, effective governance and management, and ecosystem protection, were identified as key priorities across ...
Technical Report
Full-text available
 For the management of our seas, Brexit offers an opportunity for greater ambition, for sustainability to take centre stage, and for longer term thinking.  Sharing the management of our fisheries and maintaining good relations with the EU and other relevant countries will be essential for ensuring sustainability and maintaining favourable trade in seafood.  Zero to low tariff trade in both exported and imported seafood is essential for ensuring the profitable sale of the fish the UK catches, and the affordability of the seafood the UK consumes.  Ultimately, the success of fisheries relies on a healthy marine environment. Existing marine environmental regulations should be improved, not weakened, during the Brexit process.
Full-text available
1. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has far-reaching, and often shared, implications for agriculture and fisheries. To ensure the future sustainability of UK agricultural and fisheries systems, we argue that it is essential to grasp the opportunity that Brexit is providing to develop integrated policies that improve the management and protection of the natural environments, upon which these industries rely. 2. This article advances a stakeholder informed vision of the future design of UK agriculture and fisheries policies. We assess how currently emerging UK policy will need to be adapted in order to implement this vision. Our starting point is that Brexit provides the opportunity to redesign current unsustainable practices and can, in principle, deliver a sustainable future for agriculture and fisheries. 3. Underpinning policies with an ecosystem approach, explicit inclusion of public goods provision and social welfare equity were found to be key provisions for environmental, agricultural and fishery sustainability. Recognition of the needs of, and innovative practices in, the devolved UK nations is also required as the new policy and regulatory landscape is established. 4. Achieving the proposed vision will necessitate drawing on best practice and creating more coherent and integrated food, environment and rural and coastal economic policies. Our findings demonstrate that “bottom-up” and co-production approaches will be key to the development of more environmentally sustainable agriculture and fisheries policies to underpin prosperous livelihoods. 5. However, delivering this vision will involve overcoming significant challenges. The current uncertainty over the nature and timing of the UK’s Brexit agreement hinders forward planning and investment while diverting attention away from further in-depth consideration of environmental sustainability. In the face of this uncertainty, much of the UK’s new policy on the environment, agriculture and fisheries is therefore ambitious in vision but light on detail. Full commitment to co-production of policy with devolved nations and stakeholders also appears to be lacking, but will be essential for effective policy development and implementation.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.