Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve

The laws that protect our sealife

Laws provide a strong foundation and security for the protection of our marine wildlife.

Protected by law

The UK is one of the few countries in the world to have dedicated Marine Acts. We campaigned for over a decade to have an act which would help provide protection and better management of our coasts and seas.

These laws ensure we have the necessary resources, institutions and commitment to deliver protection to our seabirds and marine life.

The UK Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009), Marine (Scotland) Act (2010) and Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 are the three pieces of legislation which together encompass the whole of the UK. 

These Acts have already led to some significant developments for conservation in the UK. The implementation of new MPAs and management bodies and the timing is different in each of our home countries.

View of sea defences with setting sun, Wallasea Island RSPB reserve, Essex, England


New Marine Protected Areas called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) have already been designated in England with more expected by 2018.

In England, the Marine Management Organisation was set up as an entirely new body with responsibility for marine planning, licensing and fisheries management. 10 new Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agencies (IFCAs) were set up in 2011 to manage and conserve our seas out to a distance of six nautical miles.

 Photographing sea cliffs at Dunnet Head RSPB reserve from fishing boat, Caithness, near Thurso, Scotland

Northern Ireland

The 2013 Northern Ireland Marine Act provides the power to create a network of MCZs around Northern Ireland. It also provides the means for a Marine Plan for Northern Ireland, licensing and enforcement.

As an existing Marine Nature Reserve, Strangford Lough automatically became Northern Ireland’s first MCZ in 2013. 

Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is responsible for the designation of MCZs and has already designated sites in Northern Irish waters.

Belfast Lough, Northern Ireland


The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 has measures for marine planning, licensing, marine conservation and enforcement.

Marine Scotland was set up in 2009 with responsibility for the management of Scotland’s seas. 30 new MPAs were announced in July 2014, 17 of these are in Scottish territorial waters and 13 in offshore waters. 

Visit Marine Scotland to learn more.

Puffin at The Shiant Isles


Skomer Marine Nature Reserve became Wales first MCZ.

Wales has also designated three seaward extensions to existing Seabird SPAs in 2014, and identified additional sites for seabirds.

Wales is currently assessing where to designate further MCZs

Visit the Welsh Government: Marine site for more information. 

Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis, in flight and the rising moon, Ramsey Island RSPB reserve, Wales

European Directives

European Directives also play an important part in protecting our marine wildlife.

Under the Marine Habitats Directive (1992), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) have been established across European seas to protect 18 marine species, such as bottlenose dolphin and grey seal, and nine marine habitats such as estuaries, reefs and lagoons. As of 2014, 108 of these have so far been established around the coasts of the UK.

The Birds Directive (1979) requires the establishment of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for listed bird species, of which 29 are seabirds. So far 108 SPAs have been set up around the UK, but all but three are in sites which are coastal.

Although our seabird colonies are well protected, the adjacent sea which they use to find food are not, a crucial missing component.

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive was transposed into national legislation in 2010. Under this Directive, the UK must ensure its seas are in 'Good Environmental Status' by 2020.

In 2016, the UK Government set out the measures which it intends to use to ensure we meet this target. The measures include fisheries management and MPAs. At the RSPB we are making sure these measures are as ambitious as possible so we will see real improvements for the marine environment.

 Baltic sea on a stormy day with heavy rain falling on coastal headland, Gellort, Cape Arkona, Rugen island, Germany's most northerly point, Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, Germany

Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009

Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis, in flight and the rising moon, Ramsey Island RSPB reserve, Wales

We campaigned for nearly a decade to get new legislation to better protect the marine environment and wildlife. Here are some of the highlights from that journey.

Marine Protected Areas for the UK

Troup Head RSPB reserve. Kittiwakes, Rissa tridactyla on the cliffs. Scotland.

The UK Government aimed to establish a coherent network of marine protected areas for UK waters.

Marine planning

Ringed plover charadrius hiaticula, adult amongst razorshells. Side view. Titchwell beach, Norfolk

We believe that a co-ordinated planning regime is needed in seas that are increasingly busy and under pressure.

Marine environmental indicators

 Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, taking off from water, Farne Islands, Northumberland

We commissioned a review of marine environmental indicators reporting on the biodiversity aspects of ecosystem health.