Pressures and Impacts

The coasts and estuaries of the UK are important environmental, cultural and economic assets. Around 50% of the UK’s biodiversity (some 40,000 species including corals, sea horses, fish and mammals such as dolphins and whales) is to be found in the sea. In 1998, 51% of people in England visited the seaside supporting the local economy. However, coastal areas are under extreme pressure from a wide range of sources and this is reflected in the rapid deterioration of many habitats. In Essex alone, 25% of all saltmarsh has been lost in the last 25 years and, in some estuaries, the rate of loss has increased over the last decade.

Since 1984, nitrogen inputs to the sea around the UK have risen by 20% while the estimated total fish stock in the North Sea has declined by 35% in the last 25 years and plaice stocks are now 25% of the size they were in 1902 (Source: English Nature).

The countryside agencies within the UK have collaborated on an EU LIFE funded project to develop management schemes for marine Special Areas of Conservation (marine SAC) - the UK Marine SAC project (see below).  A key output from this project has been a series of reports which assess the interactions that can take place between human activities and the marine environment, in order to provide better management of marine SACs and other non-designated coastal areas. This will be achieved by defining those activities that may have a beneficial, neutral or harmful impact and by giving examples of management measures that will prevent or minimise adverse effects. Each of these activities is described below and links to the reports provided.

    Recreation and Tourism

    Recreation and tourism bring economic benefit to areas which are often in economic decline. However, litter, footpath erosion and habitat disturbance are often the accompanying negative side of the financial gains, such that the very aspect that attracts visitors is degraded.

    Tourist accommodation, amenities and boat marinas are all built on the coastal margin, increasing the area of hard coastal engineering and interfering with the natural coastal processes of erosion and deposition. The effects of boating include engine exhaust emissions, oil and fuel spills, release of biocides in the form of anti-fouling and noise nuisance. Boat wash and anchoring cause erosion and damage to marginal and underwater vegetation. Very few boats in the UK have holding tanks, therefore sewage and wastewater is discharged directly overboard. Fishing can lead to loss of tackle, lines and nets which frequently kill fish and mammals. The following report provides a summary of these problems and how they may be alleviated: ‘A review of the effects of recreational interactions within UK European marine sites’.



    Mineral Extraction

    Sand, gravel and marl is extracted from both the seabed and the coast. Significant habitat loss can occur as a result. Damage may be done to areas adjacent to the extraction zone and not just the extraction site.

    Impacts include, among other things, increased sediment load in the water, changes in water chemistry and changes in water movement and sediment transport associated with altered seabed profile. These changes may be associated with reduced diversity and numbers of marine fauna and flora. The following report provides a summary of the impacts of aggregate extraction and how they may be mitigated: ‘Guidelines on the impact of aggregate extraction on European marine sites’.




    Some 97% of goods are imported in to the UK by sea, hence shipping is economically vital. Dredging of the sea bottom in key areas is conducted on a regular basis in order to maintain shipping channels. This produces disturbance both at the dredged site and in the locations where dredged sediment is deposited. The effects are similar to those associated with aggregate extraction but chemical impacts can be greater since sediments which have received long-term inputs of contaminants from shipping, such as heavy metals and anti-fouling, are being disturbed and dumped in areas of lower contamination. However, the effects of dredging are not always negative as evidenced by the project DECODE, or the Determination of the Ecological Consequences of Dredged-material Emplacement. The main aim is to help harmonise efforts and increase information transfer between the many beneficial use-related research projects coming on-stream within the UK.






    Poor practice on board ships can lead to chemical and oil spills and the discard of waste overboard. The UK Marine SAC Project report ‘Good Practice Guidelines for Ports and Harbours operating within or near marine SACs’ can be found at:



    Ports and Environment, a part of the FP-6 DG Research Integrated Project ‘Effective Operations in Ports (EFFORTS)’, aims at sustainability of port infrastructure and operations by solving environmental conflicts but maintaining efficiency.


    Shipping requires harbour facilities, the building of which causes the loss of coastal habitat and increases traffic movement, with its related pollution. Other commercial services develop in association with the port and housing developments soon follow, all located on the coastal margin and all degrading coastal habitats.


    Coasts and estuaries are the final recipient of pollution from both the sea and inland sources. River contamination frequently ends up on the coast, whether litter, chemical spills or nutrients released from farmland and wastewater treatment works. Similarly, oil spills in coastal waters and harbour areas will tend to be deposited on the coast.

    Even low concentrations of polluting chemicals can have a significant effect since they are taken up by organisms such as plankton which form the basis of the entire marine food chain. With each stage through the food chain, the chemical concentration is increased until it is highest in the top predators, such as dolphins and gannets, where it may have fatal effects, limit their capacity to breed or reduce resistance to disease.

    Litter from shipping, from inefficient handling of waste in shore-based facilities and from carelessly discarded rubbish can lead to significant quantities of windblown litter. This eventually accumulates on the sea bottom and on the shore causing odour nuisance, loss of amenity and impacting habitat quality.

    The Save the North Sea project estimates that 20,000 tonnes of litter is deposited in the North Sea annually. The project conducted a study of the plastic content of fulmars stomachs which showed that 98% of the birds inspected had plastic in their bodies, with the average quantity being twice that found in a similar 1982 study. Litter is also a significant nuisance to fishermen and can damage fishing nets.


    The UK Marine SAC project has produced two reports on coastal water quality:


    Sea Level Rise

    Sea level rise is causing significant impacts on both natural and man-made sea defence structures. Where these fail, agricultural land, buildings and natural habitat can all be damaged. Nearly 2 million properties located in floodplains along rivers, estuaries and coasts are at risk from flooding. Significant areas of low-lying land will be lost completely by about 2030 due to sea level rise, at which point it is predicted that the Thames Barrier will no longer be an adequate defence for London.

    The current loss of saltmarsh habitats is significant. This amounts to about 100 hectares a year as they are trapped in a ‘coastal squeeze’ between hard-engineered sea defences and rising sea levels. Without the hard engineering they would move inland in a natural process of rebalancing with the rising sea level. Mudflats are being similarly degraded.

    In this environment a new approach to coastal defence needs to be developed. With this in mind, English Nature has looked at how future coastal defence activities can work with natural processes rather than against them as described in ‘Environmental opportunities in low-lying coastal areas under a scenario of climate change’. English Nature Research Report No 16.


    The Foresight Flood and Coastal Defence project was designed to produce a challenging and long-term vision (30-100 years) for the future of flood and coastal defence in the whole of the UK. The project report was published in April 2004.


    The mid- term review was published January 2011:


    The increased inland flooding which may be the result of climate change is increasing the sediment and nutrient transport to the coast, in with an associated increase nutrient loading of coastal waters and reduction in water quality. The resultant excessive algal growth starves the marine ecosystem of oxygen, causing fish death and impacting higher up the food chain.

    Fishing and Fish Farming

    Fishing can negatively impact on the coastal environment in a number of ways, the most obvious being the extraction of the resource at a rate higher than its capacity to regenerate. This is not only unsustainable in economic terms but has significant effects elsewhere in the ecosystem, such as seabird and sea mammal survival. As the numbers of some fish species decline due to over fishing, typically the large and slow growing species, others become more dominant and the whole structure of the ecosystem is altered. The dumping of undersized fish is credited with increased numbers of scavenger fish, invertebrates and seabirds further distorting the natural balance.

    No Take Zones (NTZ) are areas where specific fishery activities have been voluntarily temporarily halted, for example in St Agnes, Cornwall in order to give an over-exploited resource the opportunity to recover. Evidence suggests that NTZ may be used as part of measures to conserve fish stocks, marine biodiversity and the livelihoods of those in the fishing industry. NTZ are areas closed to extractive uses, including fishing and mineral extraction. Designating NTZs allows fish to grow bigger and more numerous in and around the NTZ and enhances catches close to reserves, due to ‘spill over’ of adults into the adjacent fishing grounds.

    The NTZs act as a nursery ground, with increased production of eggs and larvae and export of these to fishing grounds. Bigger fish produce more young. NTZs are also easier to enforce compared to traditional fisheries management. Read more about NTZ at:


    Natural England have reported on the Lundy No-Take Zone – ten years on.


    Ten years on, Lundy has helped establish the foundations for marine conservation nationally and is a great example of a marine site managed using the most up to date science and evidence to inform decisions. The NTZ lies within a wider protected area, designated as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), in which some forms of fishing and other activities are permitted.


    Defra held a public consultation on proposals to designate a further 31 MCZs giving stakeholders the opportunity to comment on the recommendations for site designation and supporting evidence. This consultation closed on 31 March 2013. Of the 31 sites proposed, 27 are being designated in November 2013, 2 will be subject to further consideration and possible designation in the future, and 2 will not be designated.


    Costing the impact of demersal (close to, or on the sea bed) fishing on marine ecosystem processes and biodiversity (COST-IMPACT) is a project funded under the European Union Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources programme.


    It is investigating how demersal fishing impacts the biodiversity of marine benthos and the associated goods and services, such as the nutrient cycling that they provide, how these impacts influence other marine ecosystem processes and what the likely values of marine ecosystem goods and services are and how these values are affected by fishing.

    Fish and shellfish farming can help reduce pressure on wild stocks, but can also have an impact due to the waste detritus generated by producing a large number of fish in a small area, the chemicals used to keep the fish healthy in a relatively intensive production system, and the accidental or deliberate loss of ground tackle, cages and lines associated with these facilities. Discarded commercial and recreational fishing tackle, lines and nets are also a navigational hazard and dangerous to wildlife whether in the sea or on the shore.

    The following two reports provide a summary of the effects of fisheries on maritime habitat quality:

    ‘A review of the effects of fishing within UK European maritime sites’



    ‘Guidelines for managing the collection of bait and other shoreline animals within UK European marine sites’



Management Issues

Managing coastlines is extremely difficult. They are complex environments which are continuously changing. There are many issues and conflicting interests affecting the coastal zone. A multitude of government and local authorities, agencies and other bodies have responsibilities for, and interests in, the shoreline area. Historically they have tended to operate in isolation from each other despite the decisions in one area frequently having knock-on effects for the interests of others.

Two main divisions of coastal management have developed: that associated with coastal and flood defence and that associated with environmental conservation. A plethora of non-statutory plans have been developed during the 1990’s which focus on one or the other, or attempt to integrate both. Often different scales of plan overlap each other and timescales differ, as do those involved in the preparation of the various plans.

    Estuary Management Plans

    These plans are prepared by a project team which aims to bring together all those with an interest in an estuary to reach a consensus on the sustainable use of that estuary. The triggering factor in their development was the importance of nature conservation in estuaries and their initial development has been funded by DETR and implemented by English Nature, together with local authorities and other interested parties. All the major estuaries in England have been covered.

    Harbour Management Plans

    These plans are similar to estuary management plans in co-ordinating different interests within harbours and seeking to agree and implement management policies to promote sustainable use for conservation, recreation and economic activity.

    Heritage Coast Management Plans

    These plans are prepared by local authorities together with the Countryside Agency and the involvement of interested bodies. Their aim is to guide management to achieve the heritage coast objectives of conservation, recreation, rural economic development and environmental health.

    Local Environment Agency Plans

    The Environment Agency has published 130 general Local Environment Agency Plans (LEAPS) on a catchment basis to integrate the range of its functions and present issues to a more general audience. In respect of the water environment, this includes water quality, flood defence, fisheries, recreation, conservation and navigation.

    The plans consider the various interests of users and develop a long-term vision, highlighting key issues and developing practical solutions. The Agency is reconsidering the role of general LEAPS, in recognition of the new demands of the Water Framework Directive.

    Coastal Habitat Management Plans


    Coastal Habitat Management Plans (CHaMPS) are mechanisms for delivering flood and coastal defence schemes which comply with the requirements of the Habitats Directive. They quantify habitat change, loss and gain, and recommend measures to prevent future losses. These measures include modifying flood and coastal defence options to avoid damage, or identifying the necessary habitat restoration or recreation works to compensate for unavoidable losses.

    The cumulative impact on these features is looked at over a 30-100 year timescale. CHaMPs also include strategic habitat monitoring programmes to map future changes. The actions will be delivered through Shoreline Management Plans flood and coastal defence strategies and schemes.

    The development of CHaMPS has been trialled through seven pilot studies conducted within the Living with the Sea project.


    Defra have reviewed the lessons learnt from these pilots and have produced guidance ‘Coastal Habitat Management Plans: An Interim Guide to Content and Structure’


Integrated Coastal Zone Management

To achieve a better co-ordinated approach to coastline management across Europe, the European Commission organised a demonstration programme on Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM). Between 1996 and 1999, 35 demonstration projects were established, seven in the UK, chosen to represent the range of ecological, economic and social situations found in European coasts.

Integrated Coastal Zone Management is the term used to describe the way in which the diverse activities and interests in the coastal and marine environment are co-ordinated, managed and delivered. The objective is to establish sustainable levels of economic and social activity in coastal areas whilst protecting the coastal environment.

The objective of the demonstration programme was to provide information on the practical implications of sustainable coastal zone management. On 30 May 2002, the European Union adopted a Recommendation on implementing ICZM in Europe. This asks Member States to undertake a national stocktaking of legislation, institutions and stakeholders involved in the management of the coastal zone and, based on this, to develop national strategies to deliver ICZM by spring 2006.

The UK had already made some progress towards these objectives through the Estuaries Initiative established by English Nature in 1992 and the Firths Initiative launched by Scottish Natural Heritage in 1993, both with central government start-up funding. Since then, over 40 estuary and firth partnerships and forums have been established. All these have been established voluntarily, relying on partner financial support and receive no direct government support.

The Estuary and Firth Partnerships and Coastal Forums are broad-based groups focused on ICZM. They may cover relatively small areas or major estuaries and firths. Membership includes voluntary, private and public bodies ranging from port authorities, fisheries associations and coastal-based industry to sporting bodies.

There is no central register of these organisations but website links to many can be found at the Coast Guide website

A map of and links to English Coastal/Estuary Partnerships, Management Groups and Forums can be found on the Defra website:

Links to the regional coastal forums within Scotland can be found at the following website:

Information on the principal government departments with a responsibility for coastal areas can be found through the following websites:

In 2003, Defra and the devolved administrations joined together to commission the ICZM stocktaking requested by the EU. The project conducted a detailed analysis of how different organisations interact with each other at the coast by:

  • describing the environmental, social and economic characteristics and natural resources of the UK’s coast
  • identifying the different laws, agencies and other stakeholders that influence the planning and management of activities on the coast
  • analysing how these bodies integrate with each other and identifying any gaps, overlaps or opportunities.

The results of this review can be found in: ‘ICZM in the UK: a Stocktake’

Other publications of relevance are:

Review of Marine Nature Conservation’ July 2004

Safeguarding Our Seas: A Strategy for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of our Marine Environment - The Marine Stewardship Report’ May 2002,

The principles of ICZM are integrated into the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

The European Commission launched on 12 March 2013 a new joint initiative on integrated coastal management and maritime spatial planning.

The proposal, which takes the form of a draft Directive, aims to establish a framework for maritime spatial planning and integrated coastal management in EU Member States with a view to promote the sustainable growth of maritime and coastal activities and the sustainable use of coastal and marine resources.


Coastal Defence

Defra has policy responsibility for flood and coastal defence in England and administers the legislation which enables such works to be carried out. The National Assembly for Wales has similar responsibility in Wales, the Scottish Government in Scotland and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland. The aim of the flood and coastal defence programme is to reduce risks to people and to the developed and natural environment from flooding and coastal erosion.

This is delivered through provision of financial support to flood and coastal defence operating authorities, including local authorities, the Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and Internal Drainage Boards. It also gives publishing advice and guidance to the operating authorities and provides funding research.

    Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs)

    In 1993 a coastal defence strategy for England and Wales was jointly produced by the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now Defra) and the Welsh Office: ‘Strategy for Flood and Coastal Defence with a new Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management’. This encouraged coastal managers and decision makers to work together in coastal groups to develop Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs). The aim of these was to provide large-scale assessments of the risks associated with coastal processes and to present a policy framework to reduce these risks to people and the environment. Risks may be reduced by encouraging the provision of adequate and cost-effective flood warning systems. This can be achieved with the provision of adequate, (technically, environmentally and economically) sound and sustainable flood and coastal defence measures and by discouraging inappropriate development in areas at risk from flooding or coastal erosion. A total of 49 SMPs were prepared.

    The development of the first generation of SMPs required the formation of voluntary coastal defence groups. These coastal groups are made up of maritime district authorities, i.e. those in a coastal location, and other bodies with coastal defence responsibilities. Examples of the activities of these coastal groups can be found at the following websites:

    2001 saw the revision of the publication ‘Guide for Coastal Defence Authorities’. That guidance concluded that the first generation SMPs were excellent high-level strategic documents but that further research was needed into how the coast would evolve. Defra's updated 2006 guidance recommends that options should be appraised over a 100-year horizon, rather than 50 years as previously, offering a really sustainable "vision" for the coast. This latest updated guidance aims to help coastal groups review first generation SMPs to produce SMP2s. It is the first specific policy guidance document Defra has released under the new Making space for water strategy. Defra's guidance consists of two volumes and a CD of appendices.


    The development of second generation SMPs commenced in 2002, supported by a coastal process and geomorphological study Futurecoast, the main objective of which was to improve understanding of coastal processes and predict likely coastal evolution over the next 100 years.,_UK

    The key conclusions from the project are presented in a series of statements known as Shoreline Behaviour Statements. These statements describe both the current understanding of coastal behaviour and the predictions of future coastal evolution in both large scale and local scale. This information has also been mapped. The study output is specifically targeted at the Coastal Groups.

    The aim has been to promote a strategic approach to flood and coastal defence works along the coastline based on a detailed understanding of natural processes, planning issues, current and future land use, and environmental considerations.

    Although non-statutory, SMPs have direct inter-relationships with Estuary Management Plans and Local Environment Agency Plans and are intended to be used to provide information to support the preparation of Development Plan policies and assist Local Planning Authorities in determining planning applications in the coastal zone.

    The second generation of Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs)

    The second generation of Shoreline Management Plans cover the entire 6000 kilometres of coast in England and Wales.


    Find out about the SMP in your area and who is leading in its development.

Coastal Groups and Forums

An extensive community of voluntary coastal groups have developed to deliver the plans requested by central government. These go under various titles, most commonly coastal forum, estuary forum or coastal group. The activities of a small selection are described below.

    The Scottish Coastal Forum


    The Scottish Coastal Forum was formed in 1996 to bring together representatives of bodies with a major interest in, or responsibility for, coastal issues in order to encourage debate on coastal issues at national level, and to seek opportunities for better co-ordination of national frameworks and policies.

    ‘A Strategy for Scotland's Coast and Inshore Waters’ (2004) document sets out a long-term national strategy to sustainably manage Scotland's coast and inshore waters. The Strategy has been produced through a series of national events in partnership between the members of SCF, who involved key organisations and draw together the main issues and opportunities in the document. The document can be found at the link below:


    Links to the regional coastal forums within Scotland can be found at the following website.


    Humber Management Scheme



    The Humber is one of the North Sea’s principal estuaries. It drains about 20% of the land area of England and handles 14% of the UK’s international trade. Due to its position within the North Sea, the tidal range in the Humber is more than 6 metres in places, which classifies it as a macro-tidal estuary.

    It is also outstanding for wildlife habitats and has been designated as a ‘wetland of international importance’ under the Ramsar Convention (See glossary). The Humber Management Scheme is a plan by which to comply with Habitat Regulations 1994, which implements the EU Birds Directive and Habitats Directive in the UK.

    It was developed through the collaboration of 36 authorities which have a statutory role in the management of the Humber Estuary and involved the specially formed Humber Advisory Group which consists of and liaises with a wide range of interest groups.

    The Humber Management Scheme provides a coordinated approach for the management of the Humber Estuary European Marine Site (EMS).  It is now delivered through the Humber Nature Partnership, one of 48 Local Nature Partnerships around England. The establishment of Local Nature Partnerships has come about as a result of commitments made by Government in the Natural Environment White Paper 2011.

    Industry Nature Conservation Association (INCA)


    INCA was formed in 1988 in Teesside when the Nature Conservancy Council (now reorganised as English Nature) and ICI plc laid the foundations for an independent and neutral organisation to address the challenge and opportunities of nature conservation in the industrial environments of Teesside. A network of Industry and Nature Conservation Associations was envisaged across England but they have been slow to develop and it was not until 2000 that the second one was formed.

    The Humber INCA was formed when it became apparent that the estuary was going to be designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) (see glossary). Both the Teesside and Humber INCA are forums for industry, regulators, planners and conservation organisations to be able to build consensus on the integration of business development and nature conservation in order to benefit the region’s economy, community and environment. It aims to develop, implement and demonstrate practical ways of integrating nature conservation into commercial operations.

    At the 2013 Humber Estuary Conference the Humber INCA merged with the Humber Management Scheme and is now also delivered through the Humber Nature Partnership (see above).



    Thames Estuary Partnership (TEP)


    The TEP provides a neutral forum for local authorities, national agencies, industry, voluntary bodies and local communities to work together for the good of the Thames Estuary. The Partnership operates as a charity seeking to further the interests of local communities, local economy and the environment through co-ordinating a programme of projects, facilitating new projects and forums for joint working and hosting regular events and workshops.



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