Category Archives: SAC

Protected seas? It’s a long story

One thing you realise when you start looking at marine protected areas in the UK is that it’s complicated. Various acronyms crop up and are sometimes (and incorrectly) used interchangeably, and working out who’s responsible for which patch of sea can be difficult. So what types of MPAs are there in the UK, who is responsible for them, and what bits of legislation make them possible and protect them?

Dyfi Estuary. Photo credit: Nigel Callaghan
Dyfi Estuary at low tide, looking east.
Photo credit: copyright Nigel Callaghan, CC BY SA.

There are five elements to MPAs in the UK. These are SACs, SPAs, SSSIs, MCZs and RAMSAR sites. SACs [1, 2] are Special Areas of Conservation, and SPAs [3, 4] are Special Protection Areas. SACs and SPAs have their origins in the Berne Convention, which came into force in 1982 and covers the conservation of natural habitats and endangered species in Europe. The convention also covers migratory species so some countries in Africa and South America have also signed the convention. Ten years later the European Union passed two directives to implement the convention: the habitats directive, which gives rise to SACs, and the birds directive, which gives rise to SPAs.

The main aim of SACs is to protect habitats. Which habitats? Well, any habitats listed in annex I and those with any species listed in annex II mean that a SAC will need to be designated. What this means is that even within the area of an SAC, the majority of species will not be explicitly protected. However, other protection is normally also used, and SACs (and SPAs) are usually given SSSI status when they are created as well. The main aim of SPAs is to protect birds and their habitats, and again this applies to particular species listed in an annex. Taken together, SACs and SPAs form a network of protected areas across Europe called the Natura 2000 [5, 6] network. Natura 2000 sites that have a marine component are sometimes called European Marine Sites.

SSSIs are Special Sites of Scientific Interest, the majority of which are on land. Some SSSIs cover intertidal areas and some include areas that are permanently covered by seawater. They have a long history, with the first being created from legislation passed in 1949 [7]. The main piece of modern legislation that protects them is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 [8, 9], with further protection being provided through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. SSSIs are designated by different organisations in different areas of the UK. These are Natural England, Natural Resources Wales (which was previously the Countryside Council for Wales until April 2013), Scottish Natural Heritage, and the DoENI (Department of the Environment Northern Ireland). SSSIs are the basis of much of the other forms of protection in the UK and most other designations are based around existing SSSIs. The sites are inspected every seven years.

MCZs are a relatively new form of protected area, and were made possible by a range of legislation. Each area of the UK has responsibility for its own territorial waters out to 12 miles from the coast. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 [10, 11] covered the English and Welsh territorial waters, and UK offshore areas (out to the limits of the continental shelf). An exception to this is Scotland, which passed its own marine act in 2010 [12, 13], and retains responsibility for both territorial and offshore waters in its area. Confusingly, what would be an MCZ in any other area of the UK is called an MPA in Scotland. Northern Ireland passed its marine act in 2013 [14] and is responsible for its own territorial waters.

RAMSAR sites, like SSSIs, also have a long history. The RAMSAR convention is an international treaty created in 1971 to protect wetland sites of international importance. The first UK RAMSAR sites were created in 1976 [15].

At first glance, it seems that the seas around the UK are well protected. As we’ll see in later posts, that’s not quite the whole story.


1SACs with a marine component (JNCC)
2SACs (Natural England)
3SPAs with a marine component (JNCC)
4SPAs (Natural England)
5Natura 2000 (EU Commission)
6Natura 2000 (Natural England)
7NE306 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (Natural England)
8Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (JNCC)
9Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (Wikipedia)
10Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (JNCC)
11Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (Wikipedia)
12Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 (Scottish Government)
13Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 (Wikipedia)
14Marine Act Northern Ireland (DoENI)
15RAMSAR sites (JNCC)

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Lundy – An island of firsts

As this is the first post, I thought I’d look at another first of the marine enviroment, at least here in the UK: Lundy island. It was the first Marine Nature Reserve (MNR), the site of the first no-take zone, and the first Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ).

The island sits in the Bristol Channel about 19 kilometres off the Devon coast. It’s around five kilometres long and just over one kilometre wide, and runs roughly north-south. The importance of the island’s natural history, both above and below the water, has been recognised for a long time. The seas around the island became a voluntary marine nature reserve in 1971 and the entire island itself was listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1976.

Grey Seal. Photo credit: Andreas Trepte
Grey Seal. Photo credit: Andreas Trepte

The voluntary MNR was, as it name suggests, voluntary, but as time has progressed, the protection for Lundy has increased. A key point came in 1981 when the Wildlife and Countryside Act became law because it allowed marine nature reserves to be established with legal protection in much the same way that nature reserves on land could be protected. The marine nature reserve gained its statutory (legal) protection in 1986.

Lundy is also unusual in having a no-take zone off the eastern coast of the island where all forms of fishing are banned. This protects habitats and animals (such as the pink sea fan) from damage by fishing gear, and allows populations to build up and then spill out into surrounding areas. The NTZ was set up in 2003 and is legally enforceable under a fisheries bye-law, and a survey programme was undertaken to monitor the effects. By 2007, the number of lobsters above the minimum size that could be landed had increased by over 400%[1], despite the fact that the NTZ is relatively small at around 3.3 km2[2] compared to over 30 square kilometres covered by the MNR).

The area got another layer of protection in 2005 when the area covered by the MNR was designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). SACs are designed to protect certain habitats and particular species, and in the case of Lundy the habitats selected for protection were most importantly the reefs, and to a lesser extent the submerged and partially submerged sea caves, and sandbanks that are partially covered by seawater[3]. Lundy is a breeding site for the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), the largest sea in UK waters and globally rare, and some seals pup in sea caves in the intertidal zone.

Finally, in January 2010, the seas surrounding Lundy (and other existing MNRs such as Skomer) became Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), and are meant to be the first of a network of MCZs in the UK, although controversially, only 27 of 127 potential sites received approval in the first round of designations[4].

Lundy is an island geologically as well as literally. It’s not only an island of land but also an island of hard surfaces in a sea of surrounding soft sediments. It’s mostly composed of granite, with some slate at the southern end and below the water the reefs extend offshore (for a kilometre on the western side) before dropping to relatively deep water (30 to 40 metres) and softer sediments. The tidal currents in and out of the Bristol Channel are strong and the tidal range can be up to nine metres. The tidal regime and the complex rocky environment gives rise to a mosaic of different habitats. The underwater cliffs and overhangs are home to a variety of marine invertebrates, including all five British species of cup corals[5]. Filter feeders like anemones, corals, bryzoans and sea squirts thrive here. The seas off Lundy island are outstanding in conservation terms and the island fully deserves its list of firsts.



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