Six years on – Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas Network

A report on the progress we and our partners have made developing Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas (MPA) network over the last six years is presented to the Scottish Parliament today (Friday).

Our MPA network today looks very different to the one last reported on, in 2012. Since then 42 new MPAs have been designated to protect marine habitats, wildlife, geology, undersea landforms, historic shipwrecks, and to demonstrate sustainable management of the sea. Additionally, two existing sites have been extended to provide better protection for important seabed habitats.


Not only are there more MPAs, the network now protects a wider range of features that are more representative of Scotland’s seas.

As we’ve developed the network we’ve engaged extensively with people and organisations that have an interest in our seas – from coastal communities, to industry, recreational users, government bodies, scientists and environmental organisations. Some groups submitted their own proposals for MPAs and 14 of these contributed to areas that were subsequently designated.

Near the coast our MPAs embrace a spectacular array of landscapes, including coastal islands, exposed sandy beaches and sheltered inlets. These coastal habitats support a wealth of plants and animals including, internationally important wading birds, and common and grey seals.

Saline lagoons and estuarine habitats mark the freshwater-seaward transition with specialist plants and animals that are able to cope with dramatic changes in salinity and temperature. In nearshore MPAs the complex and variable coastline is mirrored by a diversity of productive and species-rich seabed habitats, with luxuriant kelps and beds of seagrasses, blue mussels and maerl in the shallows.


Maerl, black brittlestars, seaweeds and sponges

Alongside these habitats are MPAs for some distinctive species. The Moray Firth on the east coast is home to the world’s most northerly population of bottlenose dolphins, whilst on the west coast the Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura MPA protects a stronghold for flapper skate; a species of fish that has shown heavy declines in numbers across its historical range, including most of the North Sea. Black guillemot – a bird for which Scotland is a stronghold – is now offered protection in six sites across the north and west coasts. And while in most countries otters would not be considered as part of their MPA networks, in Scotland they are because of their unusual habit of feeding in shallow coastal waters here.


Black Guillemot, (C) Lorne Gill

The history of Scotland’s seas survives underwater too, in the form of wrecks of boats, aircraft, or more scattered remains, such as groups of artefacts on the seabed from submerged pre-historic landscapes. Since 2012 eight new MPAs have been put in place in nearshore waters to protect nationally important ship wrecks (Figure 6). They include protection for 17th-century warships, a 17th-century Dutch merchant trading vessel and the HMS Campania. Collectively, these MPAs give us fascinating insights into Scotland’s rich global maritime history.

Kinlochbervie MPA - Wessesx Archaeology copyright

Cannon on the seabed at Kinlochbervie MPA – (C) Wessesx Archaeology

Establishing an MPA network around our coastline has contributed to a sense of stewardship by some communities, local groups and individuals. Developed and proposed by the Fair Isle community, Scotland’s first Demonstration & Research MPA was designated around the island in 2016. The aim of this MPA is to demonstrate the socio-economic benefits of the marine environment and the additional benefits that MPA designation can bring to the community.

Promoting local marine life and providing opportunities for people to explore MPAs has been a focus for some communities making the most of their local MPAs. Local stewardship also led to the latest nearshore addition to the MPA network. In early 2017, residents from Lochcarron and Plockton raised concerns about potential damage to sensitive seabed habitats within Loch Carron. Following confirmation of the damage and public consultation, an MPA has now been designated to protect what is recognised as the world’s largest flame shell bed.

Further from the coast on the continental shelf, MPAs increase in size quite dramatically. The shelf environment is dominated by large sediment plains and the new MPAs now reflect this. There are MPAs for sands and gravels, burrowed mud and sandbanks, as well as for species that live in these habitats, such as the long-lived ocean quahog – evidence suggests that some of these shellfish may be over 500 years old.

Large glacial ridges known as moraines (formed from material deposited by melting ice sheets) are protected to the east of the Firth of Forth, and sandy banks within the MPA provide habitat for sandeels, a key prey species for seabird and marine mammals. The Turbot Bank MPA was selected in part for the high densities of sandeels present and its potential to provide a source of young sandeels to surrounding areas. This species is also protected down much of the east coast of Scotland from fishing. The newest addition to these continental shelf MPAs runs down much of the west coast of Scotland, protecting our smallest cetacean, the harbour porpoise.


A sandeel on a maerl bed

Beyond the edge of the continental shelf, lies the deep sea. This vast area is divided by the Wyville-Thomson ridge (an existing MPA for its reefs) which has a huge influence on the environment and therefore the marine life that lives there. The Faroe-Shetland Channel lies to the north of the ridge and is dominated by cold, Arctic waters. It was first explored by Charles Wyville-Thomson 150 years ago at the dawn of deep sea research. The MPAs in the channel were set-up to protect fragile beds of deep-sea sponge communities and an impressive series of mud volcanoes, known as the ‘Pilot Whale Diapirs’.

South of the Wyville-Thomson ridge is an area dominated by warmer, mid-Atlantic waters. Alongside the existing MPA for reefs, there are now new MPAs for spectacular gardens of soft and hard corals, all three of Scotland’s underwater mountains (known as seamounts), and systems of polygonal faults which resemble the dried mud plains of the Sahara desert. There is also an MPA for the long-lived deep-water fish, orange roughy.


Seamounts size comparison

The MPAs set-up since 2012 were selected to complement those that already existed and collectively they help ensure that the Scottish MPA network better reflects the rich variety found in Scotland’s seas.

You can see the full report here, and plenty more information about Scotland’s MPA network on our website.

All photos copyright SNH, except where stated. Graphics copyright Marine Scotland.


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