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Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA

Updated Conservation Advice was produced for the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt Nature Conservation MPA in April 2018 and is available in the Conservation Advice section below.

Status: Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area (Nature Conservation MPA)

The Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA lies in offshore waters to the west of the Shetland Islands. The site is located on the Scottish side of the Faroe-Shetland Channel, a large rift basin that separates the Scottish and Faroese continental shelves.




The Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA is located in offshore waters on the Scottish side of the Faroe-Shetland Channel, a large rift basin that separates the Scottish and Faroese continental shelves.

Five different water masses meet in the Faroe-Shetland Channel, which interact with each other and the continental slope to generate ideal conditions for the boreal 'ostur' type of deep-sea sponge aggregations to settle. Offshore subtidal sands and gravels are also present, supporting a diversity of polychaete worms and a slow-growing bivalve mollusc known as ocean quahog. The site contains an area of continental slope which could be important for maintaining the health and biodiversity of Scotland’s Seas.

More detailed site information can be found in the Summary section below.

Map displaying the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA boundary and associated protected feature data. Visit JNCC's MPA Mapper to further view and explore data for this MPA.

Map showing Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt Marine Protected Area and linking to the MPA mapper


Legislation behind the designation: Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009)


Protected Features

Feature Feature Type
Deep-sea sponge aggregations Habitat
Offshore subtidal sands and gravels Habitat
Ocean quahog aggregations Low or limited mobility species
Continental slope Large-scale feature
Continental slope channels, iceberg plough marks, prograding wedges and slide deposits representative of the West Shetland Margin paleo-depositional system Key Geodiversity Area Geomorphological
Sand wave fields and sediment wave fields representative of the West Shetland Margin contourite deposits Key Geodiversity Area Geomorphological

Specific information on the conservation objectives relating to this site is provided in the Conservation Advice section.

The acquisition of new data may result in updates to our knowledge on feature presence and extent within this site. The most up-to-date information is reflected on the map on this page and in JNCC’s MPA mapper, and the evidence underpinning this can be viewed in the Evidence section below.


Site Timeline

The diagram below is a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and designation of the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA. More detail can be found within the Relevant Documentation section below.

November 2012
Site recommended to Marine Scotland.
Summer 2013
Site subject to formal public consultation and becomes material consideration in licensing processes.
July 2014
Site designated by Marine Scotland as a Nature Conservation MPA.


Relevant Documentation

The documents referred to below and any other historical documents relating to Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt were produced during the selection and designation process and therefore may be out of date. This Site Information Centre is the most up-to-date source of information for this MPA, and will reflect any additional information gathered since these documents were produced. Information about the Nature Conservation MPA site selection process is available on JNCC's Nature Conservation MPA webpages.



Last updated: October 2017

The information for this site summary was adapted from documents listed in the Relevant Documentation section and incorporates any further information gathered since these documents were produced.


Site overview

The Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA lies in offshore waters to the west of the Shetland Islands. The site is located on the Scottish side of the Faroe-Shetland Channel, a large rift basin that separates the Scottish and Faroese continental shelves. Five different water masses meet in the Faroe-Shetland Channel, including water with sub-zero temperatures from the Arctic and relatively warmer waters from the North-east Atlantic. These water masses have different temperatures and densities and so layers are created in the water column. The layers interact with the sloping sides of the channel to produce an area of mixing between 350 m and 650 m depth, referred to as the intermediate water masses. Biodiversity in the MPA is thought to be linked to the intermediate water masses and the peak in benthic diversity and abundance occurs within the same depth range.

The higher current speeds created by the intermediate water masses, along with the presence of cobbles and boulders associated with iceberg ploughmarks, generate ideal conditions for the settlement of sponges. Deep-sea sponge aggregations are an OSPAR Threatened and/or Declining habitat and have been recorded in the channel between 400 m and 600 m depth. The type of deep-sea sponge aggregation which occurs within the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA is boreal 'ostur'. Boreal 'ostur' sponge aggregations typically have a high abundance of species of giant sponge (Demospongia), which local fishermen refer to as "Osterbunds" or "cheese-bottoms" due to their appearance. The sponges themselves often support a range of other species, for example by providing shelter for fish species and perches for filter feeders such as brittlestars. Within the UK, the boreal 'ostur' sponge aggregations only occur within the biogeographic region which includes the Faroe-Shetland Channel.

There are two distinct sedimentary communities within the site representative of offshore subtidal sands and gravels; one is found between 300 m and 600 m and is characterised by a greater proportion of cobbles and boulders; and a second below 600 m, characterised by finer sands and muddy sands. The two communities are dominated by contrasting families of polychaete worm. The sedimentary habitats in the MPA also support ocean quahog (Arctica islandica). This species of bivalve mollusc is usually buried in sand and muddy sand, and can regularly live for over 100 years. Ocean quahog are an OSPAR Threatened and/or Declining species.

The MPA also includes an area of continental slope. It is thought that the Faroe-Shetland Channel continental slope is important for maintaining the health and biodiversity of Scotland’s seas. The interaction between the various water masses and the channel slope create conditions that supply organic material to sponges and other benthic fauna, as well as aggregating prey. The wider Faroe-Shetland Channel may be an important pathway for migrating fin and sperm whales.

Five geodiversity features are included in the MPA which are representative of the West Shetland Margin palaeo-depositional system and the West Shetland Margin contourite deposits Key Geodiversity Areas. The sand and sediment wave fields in the West Shetland Margin contourite deposits were formed during interglacial periods and are unique to UK waters. Geodiversity features in the West Shetland Margin palaeo-depositional system were created in the last glacial period. During the last ice age, icebergs scoured the seabed leaving iceberg ploughmarks that remain on the sea floor. These iceberg ploughmark fields are associated with cobbles and boulders, which are ideal settlement points for deep-sea sponge aggregations.

Site location: Co-ordinates for this Nature Conservation MPA can be found in the Designation Order listed in the Relevant Documentation section.

Site area: 5,278 km2; roughly the same in area as the county of Sutherland at 5,252 km2.

Site depth range: The shallowest parts of the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA are 400 m below sea-level, however depths within the site reach 800 m below sea-level in the Faroe-Shetland Channel.

Charting Progress 2 Biogeographic Region: The MPA spans the boundary between the Scottish Continental Shelf region and the Atlantic North-West Approaches, Rockall Trough and Faroe/Shetland Channel region.

Site boundary description:  The 400 m and 800 m depth bands were used to draw the site boundary. This depth band encompasses the diversity of hydrographic conditions present in the Faroe-Shetland Channel. The boundary also covers the depth band (400 m to 700 m) at which the peak in benthic diversity and abundance occurs. All records of ocean quahog in this part of the Faroe-Shetland Channel are included in the site boundary, along with types of offshore subtidal sand and gravel habitats that are considered suitable ocean quahog habitat. The MPA covers all the records of deep-sea sponge aggregations in this area of the Faroe-Shetland Channel and includes the depth band where deep-sea sponge aggregations are known to occur in the wider region (400 m–600 m).



Last updated: October 2017

The full overview of the data used to support site identification along with information on confidence in feature presence and extent is available in the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA Data Confidence Assessment. JNCC will be adding relevant survey data for this MPA to its MPA mapper in due course.

Some of the data for this MPA have been collected through JNCC-funded or collaborative surveys and some through other means. Data from these surveys provide direct evidence confirming the presence of the protected features within the site.


Survey and data gathering

  • Faroe Shetland Sponge Belt NCMPA, Wyville Thomson Ridge SAC and Rosemary Bank NCMPA monitoring survey (2018) – This was a collaborative survey between JNCC and Marine Scotland Science which collected data to inform monitoring time-series. At Faroe Shetland Sponge Belt, 33 hours of Chariot-camera towed-video data were collected and 47 Hamon grabs were sampled for infauna and Particle size analysis.
  • Wyville Thomson Ridge and Faroe-Shetland Channel proposed MPA Survey (2012) – This survey was a collaboration between JNCC and Marine Scotland Science. Video and camera imagery were collected to support evidence on the presence and extent of deep-sea sponge aggregations and offshore subtidal sands and gravels within the MPA.
  • Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Survey (2006) – The SEA surveys were commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry (now Department for Energy and Climate Change, DECC). These surveys, in which JNCC collaborated, collected multibeam and underwater imagery data from areas off the north and west coasts of Scotland.
  • Surveys of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) 4 Region (1996-2000) – A series of dedicated environmental surveys were carried out in the SEA4 region, which includes the Faroe-Shetland Channel, between 1996 and 2000. The earlier surveys were undertaken on behalf of AFEN (Atlantic Frontier Environmental Network, a consortium of oil companies, UK government environmental advisers (JNCC, Fisheries Research Services (now Marine Scotland Science, MSS)) and the UK Department for Trade and Industry (now DECC). Further surveys were carried out as part of DECC’s SEA process. The surveys collected physical samples of the sea floor along with acoustic data.
  • Oil and gas operators in the Northern North Sea area have provided data that supports the presence of ocean quahog within the MPA boundary.


Data analysis reports

  • EMODnet – Provides supporting information on the presence and extent of offshore subtidal sands and gravels from a predictive seabed habitat map of European waters.
  • Application of the OSPAR definition of deep-sea sponge aggregations (2014) – JNCC commissioned a contract to apply the OSPAR definition of deep-sea sponge aggregations to verify suspected records of the habitat in UK waters. Survey data from this site was included in that contract and supported with high confidence presence of the 'boreal-ostur' type of deep-sea sponge aggregations.
  • Analysis of video and still images to characterise habitats and macrobenthos (2014) – Marine EcoSol were contracted by JNCC to analyse data from the 2012 survey of the Wyville-Thomson Ridge and Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt. Deep-sea sponge aggregations were identified on several stills and video tows, supporting the presence of this feature in the MPA.
  • Report on the identification of Key Geodiversity Areas in Scotland's seas (2013) – This report helped support information on the presence and extent of important geological/geomorphological areas in Scotland’s seas, which includes The West Shetland Margin Paleo-Depositional System and West Shetland Margin Contourite Deposits Key Geodiversity Areas of relevance to this Nature Conservation MPA.
  • Seafloor biotope analysis of the deep waters of the SEA4 region (2012) – Data from this site were included in a contract to identify, map and describe the seabed biotopes of the SEA4 region of Scottish seas. The analysis provides evidence of the presence and extent of different types of offshore subtidal sand and gravel habitats within the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA.
  • Photographic analysis report of the SEA/SAC Survey (2007) – Howell et al. (2007) analysed the images from the 2006 Strategic Environmental Assessment Survey. The results support the presence of offshore subtidal sand and gravels, deep-sea sponge aggregations, continental slope channels and iceberg ploughmarks within the MPA.


Additional relevant literature

References for further supporting scientific literature consulted during the identification of this site can be found in the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA Data Confidence Assessment. Please be aware that although these sources contain information in relation to this MPA, they do not necessarily represent the views of JNCC.


Knowledge gaps

If you are aware of any additional information not referred to in any of the Relevant Documentation section, please contact us.


Conservation Advice

Last updated: April 2018

Updated formal conservation advice for this MPA was produced in April 2018.  Further information on the approach used to develop this advice is available on the Conservation Advice webpage along with a Glossary of Terms used in JNCC's conservation advice and a short video explaining how to use the conservation advice packages. 

You must refer to this advice if you:

  • undertake an impact assessment for a plan or project that could impact the site;
  • provide information for such an assessment;
  • respond to specific measures to further the conservation objectives for the site; and 
  • consider the need to put new or additional management measures in place.

You may also find it useful to refer to this advice if you:

  • carry out any other activity that could impact the site.

We will engage with stakeholders to identify any lessons which JNCC can learn from customers who have used the advice, with a view to continuing to ensure it is fit-for-purpose.

The following table provides an overview of the components of the conservation advice, and provides hyperlinks to each of the products for this MPA. These elements together form JNCC’s formal conservation advice for this site and should be read in conjunction with each other. This advice reflects the most up-to-date evidence held by JNCC (correct as of April 2018). 

Document Overview
Background Information Explains the purpose of the advice and when it must be referred to.

Conservation Objectives

Supplementary Advice on the Conservation Objectives (SACO)

The Conservation Objectives set out the broad ecological aims for the site. JNCC provides supplementary advice in the SACO which is essential reading to support interpretation of these conservation objectives. It provides further detail and site-specific information for each feature within the site including which of the attributes need to be conserved and which ones recovered.

You can use these documents to assess the impacts of your planned activity on the important attributes of the site.

Please note our current understanding of whether the available evidence indicates that each attribute needs to be restored or maintained is not provided here. However, links to available evidence for the site are provided and should you require further site-specific information for the site, please contact us.

Conservation Advice Statements

These statements provide a summary of the Supplementary Advice on the Conservation Objectives (SACO)

  • Site condition presents our up-to-date understanding of the condition of features within the site;
  • Conservation benefits which the site can provide, these help you understand what is important about the site and why it needs protecting; and
  • Conservation measures which JNCC considers are needed to support achievement of the conservation objectives. These provide clarity around measures needed to support restoration or maintenance of the feature(s) within the site.
Advice on Operations

Provides information on the activities capable of affecting site integrity and therefore achievement of the site’s conservation objectives.

This is a starting point for determining potential management requirements. It does not take into account the intensity, frequency or cumulative impacts from activities taking place. It is simply to advise you of the possible adverse impacts that your activity can have on a MPA’s features.

Use the advice on operations to determine those pressures your activity causes that could harm the habitat and/or species features of the site.

These documents are all available on JNCC's Resource Hub.


Activities and Management

Last updated: October 2017

Management status: Progress is ongoing, with fisheries management options being developed. Directed site condition monitoring work will be required in order to conclude with confidence as to the degree to which the site is moving towards or achieving its conservation objectives.

This site forms part of the UK’s contribution to the OSPAR Commission’s network of MPAs. As the UK is a contracting party to the OSPAR Commission, JNCC is committed to ensuring that the OSPAR MPA network is well-managed.

JNCC considers well-managed to mean the timely progress of an MPA around the 'MPA management cycle'. This involves:

  1. The documentation of appropriate management information – conservation objectives, advice on activities capable of affecting the protected features of a site, and spatial information on the presence and extent of the protected features of a site.
  2. The implementation of management measures – management actions considered necessary to achieve the conservation objectives of a site.
  3. Site condition monitoring programmes – collecting the information necessary to determine progress towards a site’s conservation objectives.
  4. Assessment of progress towards conservation objectives – using available information to infer whether or not a site is moving towards or has achieved its conservation objectives.

The sub-sections that follow provide an account of the progress of Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA around each of these four stages in the MPA management cycle:


1. The documentation of appropriate management information

  • The conservation objectives and advice on activities capable of affecting the conservation status of the protected feature of this site are available under the Conservation Advice section. Further information is available on our Conservation Advice webpages.
  • Spatial information on the presence and extent of the protected feature of this MPA is available via JNCC’s MPA mapper.
  • JNCC is in the process of developing downloadable MPA data packages where appropriate permissions to share datasets are in place.


2. The implementation of management measures

This section details progress towards the implementation of management measures for activities considered capable of affecting the conservation status of the protected features of the site. The protected features of the site are considered to be sensitive to pressures associated with fishing and 'licensable' activities.


  • Prior to 2016 there is evidence of mobile demersal, static and pelagic effort within the MPA, and UK and non-UK registered vessels have been active in the area. 
  • Marine Scotland is the lead authority regarding the implementation of, and compliance with, any measures to managing fishing activity. Further information on progress is available via Marine Scotland's webpages.
  • In compliance with Part 5, Chapter 7 of The Common Fisheries Policy and Aquaculture (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Statutory Instrument (S.I.) 2019 No. 753, there is a ban on the use of all bottom-contacting mobile gear below 800 m depth across all UK waters. This applies across the area of Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA where the depth falls below 800 m.
  • Part 5 Chapter 7 of S.I. 2019, No. 753 also implements restrictions on fishing between 400 m and 800 m where Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs) are present, or are likely to occur. These rules aim to minimise the impact of fishing activities on VMEs.
  • Under The Common Fisheries Policy and Animals (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 S.I. 2019, No. 1312 (amending S.I. 2019, No. 753) there is a prohibition on the use of bottom-set gillnets, entangling nets, and trammel nets at depths greater than 200 m for the protection of deepwater shark species. These protective measures are also applied in the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) technical measures regulatory area (beyond European Union waters) through the same S.I.

Licensable activities

  • Surface and subsurface infrastructure associated with a number of oil and gas developments overlap within this MPA. A large proportion of the MPA overlaps with license blocks identified by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (formally the Department of Energy and Climate Change) and so may be subject to further oil and gas development in the future.
  • Licensable activities such as oil and gas exploration and production taking place or that may take place within this MPA are managed in accordance with the clauses set out under Section 127 of The Marine & Coastal Access Act (2009). Under this clause, JNCC has a statutory responsibility to advise the regulator on developments that are capable of affecting (other than insignificantly) the protected features of the MPA and that may hinder the achievement of the sites conservation objectives. JNCC considers the existing marine licensing process is sufficient to ensure the management of licensable activities taking place, or that could take place in the future, on the protected features of this MPA.
  • For further information, see Marine Scotland’s draft MPA Management Handbook and Marine Scotland’s guidance for marine licence applicants.
  • Further information on JNCC's role in the provision of advice for licensed activities in the UK offshore area is available on JNCC's offshore industry advice webpages.

Telecommunications cables

  • Two telecommunications cables cross through the MPA.
  • Cables are largely an unregulated activity in offshore waters depending upon the type of cable being laid (or maintained), where it is being laid between and whether the cable is part of a larger development (which may be regulated). Any cable not directly associated with an energy installation does not require a marine licence beyond 12 nautical miles.
  • JNCC encourages early discussion from operators regarding any plans related to new or existing cables, and encourages the undertaking of non-statutory environmental impact assessments for new or existing cable projects to assess their effect on the protected features of the MPA.


3. Site condition monitoring

Site condition monitoring surveys are yet to take place within this MPA. Further information will be made available within the Monitoring section in due course.


4. Assessment of progress towards conservation objectives

No long-term condition monitoring data are available to determine whether the MPA is moving towards or has reached its conservation objectives. Further information will be provided within the Assessment section as it becomes available.



Last updated: October 2017

JNCC is currently leading on the development of a strategy for biodiversity monitoring across all UK waters, to include MPA monitoring. Data and evidence collected from MPA monitoring activities will aim to:

  • Enable assessment of condition of the features within sites;
  • Enable assessment of the degree to which management measures are effective in achieving the conservation objectives for the protected features;
  • Support the identification of priorities for future protection and/or management; and,
  • Enable Government to fulfil its national and international assessment and reporting commitments in relation to MPAs and help identify where further action may be required.

Information on monitoring of this MPA will be provided when it becomes available.



Last updated: October 2017

Assessments of the condition of designated features in offshore MPAs are required to report against our legal obligations. Ideally these assessments should be based on observed data, and then measured against targets for pre-defined indicators. However, for MPAs in offshore waters we do not always have the appropriate information to be able to do so. This is particularly true for seabed habitats, which are the main type of feature designated for protection in offshore MPAs. 

To address these challenges, JNCC has been an active partner in the development of new approaches and tools for the assessment of habitats and species for a variety of national and international status reports. 


Conservation Assessment reports

Under Section 124 of the UK Marine & Coastal Access Act (2009), JNCC is required to report to Ministers every six years on the degree to which the conservation objectives of the protected features of the site have been achieved. Every six years from 2012, the Marine Act requires a report setting out how NCMPAs have performed against their conservation objectives, as well as the effectiveness of the network as a whole. Marine Scotland has published a report setting out progress being made in implementing a Marine Protected Area network that supports the Government’s vision of clean, healthy, safe, productive, biologically diverse marine and coastal environment, managed to meet the long-term needs of nature and people.

Outputs of assessments that feed into Marine Act reporting will also feed into reporting under other obligations.


UK State of the Seas Reports & Marine Strategy Part one

Charting Progress 2 (CP2), published in 2010, is a comprehensive report on the state of the UK's seas. It was published by the UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS) community, which has over 40 member organisations. The report was based on a robust, peer-reviewed evidence base and describes progress made since the publication of Charting Progress in 2005. It provides key findings from UK marine research and monitoring for use by policy makers and others, as we move towards the UK vision of clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas. The results from CP2 were incorporated into the UK Marine Strategy Part One: UK Initial Assessment and Good Environmental Status, published in 2012 under the UK Marine Strategy Regulations (2010). The UK Marine Strategy Part One (2012) also set out the UK’s definition for Good Environmental Status, which could be achieved by meeting a series of environmental targets. JNCC worked with other organisations in the UKMMAS community to develop a series of indicators that were used to assess progress against each of the targets and to report on progress made since 2012. The results of these assessments have been published in the UK Marine Strategy Part One: UK Updated Assessment and Good Environmental Status in 2019. Detailed evidence used to make these assessments is available via the Marine Online Assessment Tool (MOAT). It also sets out proposals for updated high-level objectives, targets and operational targets to be used for 2018 to 2024, which build on those set in 2012.

It is worth noting the two other parts of the UK Marine Strategy: UK Marine Strategy Part Two: marine monitoring programmes, published in 2014; and UK Marine Strategy Part Three: programme of measures, published in 2015. Updates to these will be made in 2020 and 2021 respectively.


OSPAR Quality Status Reports

Many of the assessments in the updated UK Marine Strategy Part one (2019) were developed and produced in collaboration with other contracting Parties of the OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the North East Atlantic. In 2017, OSPAR published its Intermediate Assessment (IA2017). The IA 2017 further develops OSPAR’s understanding of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic and its current status. It demonstrates OSPAR’s progress towards realising its vision of a clean, healthy and biologically diverse North-East Atlantic, used sustainably. IA2017 follows on from OSPAR’s previous holistic assessment, the OSPAR Quality Status Report in 2010 (QSR2010) and in 2000 (QSR2000).


JNCC continues to develop and pilot tools for the assessment of marine habitats and species in offshore waters to improve the quality and transparency of our offshore MPA assessments, and contribute to the monitoring of marine biodiversity in UK waters. These tools cover methods for producing interim assessments of site features and their responses to pressures, as well as developing more robust indicators for determining condition of the features.



Published: .

This Site Information Centre (SIC) was created and last substantially updated prior to the end of the Transition Period following the UK’s exit from the European Union (31 December 2020). Therefore some of the content may still refer to EU legislation and management proposals or commitments which were correct at the time that the content was last updated. These references will be revised as necessary when the SIC is next substantially revised. Requirements through EU legislation are being retained in the UK so existing environmental protections and standards remain, and the protection given to habitats and species continues.

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