Nature and Biodiversity

Highly protected marine areas will benefit UK fishing, not threaten it

Brexit offers a rare opportunity for the UK to revisit its fishing policies Image: Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash

Enric Sala
Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society, Member of Friends of Ocean Action and Champions for Nature
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Nature and Biodiversity?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Future of the Environment is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Future of the Environment

  • Highly protected marine areas (HPMA) have proved to be the most effective way to conserve and restore marine life.
  • They also offer economic benefits, both through tourism and by improving fishing stocks nearby.
  • The UK government now has an opportunity to create more HPMAs; the future of its marine life and fishing sector depends upon it.

The most destructive way to obtain food from the ocean is bottom trawling. Especially egregious are the ships called 'supertrawlers', the largest fishing vessels in the world. Their nets, which are large enough to hold a dozen 747 jets, destroy everything in their paths, including 1,000-year-old deep corals.

Surprisingly, bottom trawling is allowed within some marine protected areas (MPAs) in the UK. Even worse, according to a recent Greenpeace investigation, 25 supertrawlers spent almost 3,000 hours fishing – legally – in 39 different MPAs in the UK in 2019.

In contrast, a recent independent report commissioned by the UK government determined that highly protected MPAs (HPMAs) – areas in which all fishing activities are banned – are necessary for conserving and restoring the UK’s marine ecosystems. But presently, despite the UK Government claiming that 40% of English seas are protected, in fact only 16.4 square kilometres, or 0.01% of England’s waters, are currently fully protected from fishing.

Have you read?

Why the disconnect?

HPMAs have proven to be the most effective mechanism for conserving and restoring marine life. I have been working on the creation and monitoring of HPMAs all over the world for 30 years, and have seen them perform miracles. I have seen underwater deserts become havens of marine life just a few years after full protection. These HPMAs harbour fish so large that few living fishermen have ever seen such specimens in their nets. Our research shows that, on average, the biomass of fish – the tonnes of fish per hectare – is six times larger inside HPMAs than in unprotected areas nearby.

In other words, HPMAs are like savings accounts, with an investment set aside that grows like compound interest. As fish and shellfish are not killed, they grow larger, and have sex over longer periods of time, producing a disproportionately larger number of eggs. Many of those animals spill over the boundaries of the HPMAs, and their eggs and larvae are dispersed over large distances.

These are the returns of the savings account, which benefit local fishermen. We’ve seen fishermen increase their catches and incomes around HPMAs from small to large, catching species from scallops to lobsters to tuna. In addition, once the fish return, divers come in to the HPMA, helping to create jobs and bringing in additional economic revenue. A decade ago, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – one-third of which is a HPMA – reef tourism supported 54,000 full-time jobs and brought in AUD5.5 billion ($3.78 billion) to the Australian economy – 36 times more than commercial fishing.


So, if HPMAs seem such good business for marine life and for people, why don’t we have more of them?

In my discussions with fisherfolk, fishing lobbyists and politicians around the world, there is a belief that HPMAs will harm fishing, and a myth that allowing fishing inside their boundaries would be best for the fishing sector. But a 2018 study showed that trawlers fish more intensely in European MPAs that allow bottom trawling – including the UK’s – than in unprotected areas nearby, thus driving down by two thirds the abundance of sensitive species such as sharks, rays and skates within their boundaries. These areas cannot be called protected, and they don’t help fisheries either. They are an illusion that is not supported by the evidence. The science shows that the higher the level of protection of MPAs, the greater the benefits for everyone – including the local folk fishing around them.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Brexit provides a rare opportunity for the UK to take a breath and revisit its marine policy. HPMAs, alongside responsible fisheries management, can bring back the richness of the seas that UK fishermen long for. Imagine seas of abundance and replenishment for generations to come, instead of a race to the bottom where the only conservation of resources happens on paper.

The worst enemy of fishing is overfishing, not protected areas. The future of marine life and the people who live off the UK’s waters depend on them.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

4 steps to jumpstart your mangrove investment journey

Whitney Johnston and Estelle Winkleman

June 20, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum