The Fate of UK MPAs post Brexit

Updated: Jan 26, 2019

The UK, has 298 designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) covering 24% of UK waters with varying degrees of protection. However, when over 50% of these sights have been set up under EU Laws, what is their fate following the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU)?.

From alleviating the impacts of climate change and maintaining our food supplies to providing us with beautiful beaches to enjoy at the weekend, achieving the UK Governments vision for “clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas” impacts all of us. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a key tool used by governments around the world to safeguard important marine areas against degradation and overexploitation. In the UK, there are 298 designated MPAs covering 24% of UK waters with varying degrees of protection (1).  However, when over 50% of these sights have been set up under EU Laws, what is their fate following the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU)?

Current Legislation.

Since joining the EU (then the European Economic Community) in 1973 the UK has adopted EU environmental laws. Thus, for over 40 years EU legislation has had a dominant influence over the UK MPA programme. The most influential EU directives have been the EU Habitat and Species Directive, which requires the establishment of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for a number of listed habitats and species, and the EU Birds Directive requiring the establishment of Special Protection Areas (SPAs). SACs and SPAs currently make up 212 of the 298 MPAs in the UK. The remaining MPAs, Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), have been established using national legislation (such as the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009) designed to protect nationally important habitats and species that are not already protected under EU law. However, it could be argued that national laws governing MCZs are weaker than the EU laws governing SACs and SPAs. This means damaging activities such as fishing and heavy industry are less restricted in MCZs and could potentially still pose a threat to the marine ecosystems in these areas.

What happens when we leave?

As with all things Brexit, the fate of UK environmental legislation when we leave the EU is shrouded with uncertainty. However, whatever Brexit scenario does occur, the UK will still be obligated to meet its commitments to international agreements such as the Regional Sea Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (the OSPAR Convention). OSPAR has played an influential role in the marine policy of the UK and wider European marine environment, and the EU directives currently are the means to adopting its recommendations and agreements (3). Upon leaving the European Union, the UK will also become an “independent coastal state under international law (UN Convention on the Law of Sea) with jurisdiction over our territorial sea and Exclusive Economic Zone, up to 200 miles on the median line between us and neighbouring states”(4).

In terms of domestic and national legislation, the approach to favour environmental protection would be that the EU laws which manage and protect the marine environment will be reintegrated into the UK legal system and regulations will remain as stringent as they were previously on SACs and SPAs. A bonus would be if current restrictions on MCZs were increased to the same level of SACs and SPAs, providing increased protection to a larger area of UK waters. However, Defra itself (the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has expressed concern that at least 30% of EU environmental laws cannot be simply transposed onto the UK statute book owing to challenges with enforcement and accountability (2).

Furthermore, there has been commercial pressure to amend the UK law that transposes EU environmental legislation to UK domestic legislation.  This may be because some industries in the marine sector would benefit from a watering down of the EU legislation, allowing previously restricted activities to occur in SACs and SPAs.

In contrast, Brexit could provide an opportunity to optimise marine conversation in the UK. Accelerating the development of an MPA network tailored to best suit the needs of both UK citizens and our marine ecosystems. Although, owing to the transboundary nature of marine issues such as fishing and pollution, the continued collaboration and engagement with EU countries and other neighbours will be essential (3).

We know Brexit will have an impact on environmental policy in the UK, however it not clear precisely how. In recent decades, the UK has seen a positive trend in marine conservation and much of this has been facilitated by EU environmental legislation. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the UK government to ensure any changes to legislation do not have a negative impact on the current success of our MPA network and we continue on a trajectory towards healthier seas.


An Article by Amber Carter.

Reference List:



3 Boyes, S. & Elliot, M. Brexit: The marine governance horrendogram just got more horrendous! Mar. Pollut. Bull. 41–44 (2016).

4 Sustainable fisheries for future generations (White Paper), DEFRA.

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