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European Marine Sites (EMS)

Mudflats at Lepe
Lepe © Bird Aware Solent

In 1992, the European Community passed Council Directive 92/43/EEC, the 'EC Habitats Directive'. The Habitats Directive aims to maintain biodiversity by conserving important habitats and species, whilst contributing to the sustainable development of designated sites. The implementation of both the Habitats and Birds Directives is translated into English and Welsh legislation by the Conservation of Habitats & Species Regulations 2017 (as amended), commonly known as the 'Habitats Regulations'.

The legislation transposing the EU Habitats Directive and the Wild Birds Directive has been changed so that they continue to operate effectively from 1 January 2021. This includes the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended) in England and Wales, and the Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended). The changes were made by the Conservation of Habitats and Species (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. The changes ensure the strict protections afforded to sites, habitats and species, including wild birds continue. Most of these changes involved transferring functions from the European Commission to the appropriate authorities in England and Wales. All other processes or terms in the 2017 Regulations remain unchanged and existing guidance is still relevant.

The term 'European Marine Site' (EMS) (as defined by the Habitats Regulations) refers to those marine areas of both Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which are protected under the Habitats & Species Regulations. An EMS can be an entire SAC or SPA, or only part of one (the SAC/SPA may also include terrestrial areas). However, ‘European Marine Site’ is not a statutory site designation; these areas are essentially management units for those sites which extend beyond the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) /Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) designations in the UK.

European Marine Sites are now commonly referred to under the umbrella term of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs); however the definition of MPAs is wider and also includes Marine Conservation Zones. View the Marine conservation advice package status interactive map to see site locations.

Highly Protected Marine Areas are being brough forward that will take a ‘whole site approach’, conserving all species and habitats within their boundary to maximise protection of marine habitats and species. The government will develop criteria for identifying the sites and create a list of potential sites in 2021, followed by designations of a number of sites in 2022.

The main requirements for EMS sites are: