Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Marine Protected Area (MPA) is the term given to an area of the coast/sea which is designed to manage human activity and bring about conservation of marine habitats and species. There are many different types of MPA, with different levels of management and protection. For example, there are MPAs which only manage or restrict a few activities, whilst others (called Highly Protected MPAs) can restrict all activities which damage or remove habitats and species. The wide variety of MPA types has lead to many different names for MPAs.

In Northern Ireland our MPAs include:

  • European marine sites- important marine areas at a European level and include SACs (Special Areas of Conservation) which are designated for habitats or species and SPAs (Special Protection Areas) which are protected for birds.
  • ASSIs (Areas of Special Scientific Interest) - set up to protect the best examples of Northern Ireland's plants, wildlife and geological features.  Although these sites are predominantly on land, there are some sites that are situated in coastal and marine environments.
  • Ramsar sites - designed to protect wetland habitats.  They may incorporate coastal areas adjacent to wetlands.
  • Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) - a new type of MPA to be introduced under the Northern Ireland Marine Act. These areas are designated to protect species, habitats and geological features of national importance, and will contribute to a UK wide marine network of sites. 

The UK MPA network 

The UK has commitments under international agreements and European Directives to protect at least 10% of our seas and create a well-managed network of Marine Protected Areas (MPA).

Each of the administrations in the UK will be designating MPAs in their seas to protect nationally important and representative species and habitats, and to complement their existing protected areas. The aim is to create an 'ecologically coherent' network of MPAs across the UK and regionally in the North-East Atlantic. To be 'ecologically coherent' means that the network of protection is strong enough to have wider benefits for the health of our entire seas - not just the species or habitats found within the MPA. This means the MPA network has to be well connected, with good representation of marine species and replication of sites so that species and habitats are protected at more than one location. 

At present, each UK administration is working along different time frames, and carrying out designation in very different ways. The NI Marine Task Force and our sister organisations are concerned that ecological coherence will not be achieved if the administrations do not work closely together to plan sites with these principles in mind, and with high ambition to produce coherence at both local scale and regional UK scale. 

What does Northern Ireland need to do?

We are campaigning for Northern Ireland to introduce well managed, and effectively enforced MPAs which will protect the range of habitats and species present in Northern Ireland seas. We want to see the designation of future MCZs based upon sound science, with socio-economic factors considered but not given priority over the long term health and sustainability of our seas. We want to see sites with species and habitats vulnerable to damaging human activity given full protection, through highly protected MPAs. Northern Ireland needs to commit sufficient public money for management, enforcement and monitoring of all MPAs, to ensure that designation achieves real environmental benefits.

How do highly protected areas work?

The sliding panel below describes the principle of how a highly protected MPA works to increase the number and size of species (such as fish and shellfish) and promote sustainable fishing activity. Once an area is designated as highly protected, and provided with adequate resources to police and manage activities, the MPA provides an area of minimal or no-disturbance, as activities such as fishing, mining and development are not permitted. Activities such as diving, swimming, sailing through (not anchoring), and scientific research are generally permitted. Over time, the area inside the MPA sees a restoration of previously damaged habitats, an increase in wildlife populations (such as fish and shellfish), and in many species an increase in overall body size. This essentially means more and bigger fish inside the MPA. Gradually, the population increase for certain species leads to a 'spill over' of individuals from inside the MPA to the area outside the MPA. The highly protected area is therefore providing larger and more fish to the area outside its boundaries. This can be good news for the fishing industry, as they are able to catch bigger fish and shellfish around the MPA boundaries, whilst not disturbing the highly protected area. This is a positive step towards sustainable fishing. Having undisturbed areas, with healthy and abundant wildlife is also good for tourism and recreational activities such as diving- as people are excited to see wildlife at its best. The concept of highly protected MPAs, when properly managed, can lead to both conservation benefits and economic benefits for people. 

Campaign To Support Marine Conservation Zones

View Our Campaign To Support Marine Conservation Zones For Northern Ireland

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How highly protected zones work

Create, protect and enforce the highly protected area

Over time the protected fish and other species inside this protected area get bigger, older and have more babies. The population size increases.

Over time as the protected area allows the populations of fish and other species to increase, some individuals 'spill over' the highly protected boundary into the outside area.

Now both inside the highly protected area and in the area just outside, there is more marine wildlife. They are often bigger and more successful at breeding. This is good for the environment, but it also means that there are more (and larger) fish and shellfish for fishermen to catch.