Man-made litter still affecting protected coastal areas, study finds

Beaches in or near England’s marine protected areas have the same levels of litter as those in unprotected areas, new research shows.

The study found “no difference” in the amount of man-made litter present inside and outside the protected areas.

These include the 91 marine conservation zones, 256 special areas of conservation and 89 special protection areas – created for birds.

Volunteers collect litter on Kinneil beach during last year's Great British Beach Clean (Marine Conservation Society/PA)
Volunteers collect litter on Kinneil beach during last year’s Great British Beach Clean (Marine Conservation Society/PA)

Plastic was the main form of litter found, and “public littering” the most common identifiable source.

The study, which used data from Marine Conservation Society beach cleans, found marine protected areas in Kent and Devon and Cornwall had the highest levels of shore-based litter.

Regional differences in the items found – such as fishing materials in the West Country and debris from sewage around large rivers – demonstrate the need for “locally appropriate management”, the researchers said.

The work was carried out by the University of Exeter, Natural England and the Marine Conservation Society.

“Our work has found that marine protected areas, which often contain sensitive marine habitats and species, are exposed to litter much in the same way as non-protected sites,” said Dr Sarah Nelms, of the University of Exeter.

“Marine protected areas have no physical boundaries so, to protect them from any potential impacts of litter, we need to take a whole-system approach and reduce the overall amount of litter being released into the environment.

“We also need a co-ordinated approach that considers local nuances, tackling sources of litter that cause specific problems in certain areas.”

The study used 25 years of beach clean data collected by Marine Conservation Society volunteers.

Dr Hazel Selley, from Natural England, said: “A clean, healthy and biologically diverse marine environment is immensely valuable, for the economy in coastal communities, for our charismatic wildlife and – once we can travel again – for the mental well-being benefits of spending time by the sea.

“This research sheds a light on how marine plastic pollution respects no boundaries.

“As we continue to research the impact of plastics on our marine life and move to eliminate avoidable plastic waste, it’s also clear that we all have a role to play keeping our beaches and ocean clean.”

Lauren Eyles, from the Marine Conservation Society, said: “The types of litter that were found are typical of those regularly picked up and recorded by our dedicated volunteers.

“What this study highlights is how long-term data from Beachwatch can provide vital evidence in helping to understand the problem, and that marine protected areas don’t necessarily protect important habitats and species; an even more powerful message to stop litter at source.”

– The paper, Investigating The Distribution And Regional Occurrence Of Anthropogenic Litter In English Marine Protected Areas Using 25 Years Of Citizen-Science Beach Clean, is published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

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