Skip to Content

North Channel MPA

Roughly the size of County Fermanagh, the North Channel SAC has been identified for the protection of harbour porpoise, especially in winter. 




Map displaying the North Channel MPA boundary and associated protected feature data. Visit JNCC's MPA Mapper to view and download the boundary for this site.





The conservation objectives for the site is to maintain site integrity by ensuring:

  1. Harbour porpoise are a viable component of the site
  2. There is no significant disturbance of the species
  3. The condition of supporting habitats and processes, and the availability of prey is maintained

North Channel SAC Factfile
Designation Special Area of Conservation (SAC)
Date of Designation February 2019

Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

Feature Status Favourable
Site Status Favourable
Site Management  JNCC and DAERA


Harbour Porpoise SACs video



Last updated: March 2023

Key features of North Channel SAC
Size 1,604 km2 
Latitude, Longitude (centre) 54.4555, -5.2936
Depth Range Mean Low Water to 150m below sea-level
Habitat type(s) Course sediment, sand and mud
Biogeographic Region(s) Irish Sea region


The North Channel SAC is located along the eastern coast of Northern Ireland, and has been identified as an important winter area for harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena. It is estimated that it supports around 1.2% of the UK Celtic and Irish Seas Management Unit (MU) population.  Although small compared to most of the harbour porpoise SACs, this site, with an area of 1,604 km2, supports areas where large groups of up to 100 harbour porpoise have been sighted and are considered to be the best porpoise watching locations in Northern Ireland.

Habitats within the site consist mainly of coarse or sandy sediments, with patches of rock and mud. Water depths reach a maximum of 150m along the eastern boundary, but much of the site lies between 10 m and 40 m. 85% of the site lies in Northern Irish inshore waters (0–12 nm from shore), hence, both the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland (DAERA), and JNCC are responsible for producing statutory advice for this site.

Survey data collated through the Joint Cetacean Protocol (JCP) were analysed to identify areas with persistently high harbour porpoise occurrence. The modelled outputs of this analysis demonstrate that the North Channel SAC persistently contains densities of porpoises which are within the top 10% of those for the Management Unit during winter. Included within this site is a 2 x 8 km strip, extending along the coast from Mew island in the south to Island Magee in the north. This section of the site was supported by land-based sightings data, validated and stored by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG). Further detail on the evidence for this SAC can be found in the Monitoring and Evidence section.

The site fully encompasses the South Rigg and Outer Belfast Lough Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) and overlaps slightly with the The Maidens and  Pisces Reef Complex SAC.



Protected Features

Feature Feature Type Management Unit Conservation Objectives
Harbour porpoise
Phocoena phocoena
Annex II Species Celtic and Irish Seas
Management Unit
Maintain site integrity


Site Boundary

The North Channel SAC boundary was defined based on predicted areas with high densities of harbour porpoise identified through data modelling over an 18-year period. As a general principle, site boundaries were drawn tightly around the qualifying feature. The seaward boundaries were drawn using straight lines where possible; however, a balance was needed between more-complex site shapes drawn tightly around the feature and simple square/rectangular boundaries, so that the area of ‘non-interest-feature’ within the boundary was reduced. Further boundary principles were developed due to the nature of the modelled output. The modelling approach used 5 x 5 km grids, and so the model output was "blocky", and further boundary smoothing methods were applied to simplify the boundary, without altering the site area by more than 5%. Coastal edges were defined by the “Mean Low Water” (MLW) tide line.


Conservation objectives

The conservation objectives for the North Channel SAC are to ensure that the integrity of the site is maintained and that it makes the best possible contribution to maintaining Favourable Conservation Status (FCS) for harbour porpoise in UK waters. In the context of natural change, this will be achieved by ensuring that:

  1. Harbour porpoise is a viable component of the site;
  2. There is no significant disturbance of the species; and
  3. The condition of supporting habitats and processes, and the availability of prey is maintained.

Conservation objectives set out the desired state for the protected feature(s) of an MPA. The conservation objectives for the protected feature of the North Channel Special Area of Conservation (SAC) are available in the Conservation Objectives and Advice on Operations document.

This information should be referred to if you are:

  • Preparing Habitats Regulations Assessments (HRAs) of proposed plans or projects that may affect the site;
  • Planning measures to maintain or restore the site and its qualifying feature;
  • Monitoring the qualifying features; and/or
  • Developing, proposing or assessing an activity, plan or project that may affect the site.

JNCC is working to provide more detailed advice on the interpretation of the conservation objectives listed above and updates will be provided here when available.



Legislation behind the designation: The EU Habitats Directive 1992 transposed into UK law by The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 and subsequent Amendment (2019) within 12 nautical miles (nm), and The Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 between 12 nm out to 200 nm or the UK Continental Shelf.


Legislation on site management: Under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2017) any proposed activity which may significantly harm a sites designated features is subject to a Habitats Regulation Assessment (HRA). Retained EU Regulation 2019/1241 prohibits most net fishing practices across part of the site between February and April. Fishing gear restrictions can be viewed in full using the Kingfisher Fishing Restriction Map.



Site Timeline

The diagram below is a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and designation of the North Channel SAC.  More detail can be found in the Relevant Documentation section or in the sections below.

December 2014
Site submitted as initial advice to Government.
June 2015
Site formally recommended to UK Government as draft Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
Formal public consultation. Site becomes possible SAC. Post-consultation advice submitted to the UK Government.
Site submitted to the European Commission. Site becomes a candidate SAC / Site of Community Importance (cSAC/SCI).
February 2019
Site formally designated by the UK as a SAC.


Activities and Management

Last updated: March 2023

Summary of the medium to high pressures towards Harbour porpoise in the Southern North Sea SAC, adopted from table 1 of the Conservation Objectives and Advice on Operations document:

Pressure Potential Impact Relative Risk of Impact
Entanglement/Bycatch Mortality
Contaminants Effects on water and prey quality
Bioaccumulation through contaminated prey ingestion 
Anthropogenic underwater sound Mortality
Internal injury
Disturbance leading to behavioural changes
Habitat changes/loss
Reduction in prey resource Reduction in food availability
Increased competition 
Displacement from natural range
Collision with vessels or installations Mortality
Disclaimer; this information is adapted from the Conservation Objectives and Advice on Operations document, published in 2019.


In June of 2020, JNCC together with Natural England (NE) and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland (DAERA) published advice to competent authorities on what could constitute Significant Disturbance within harbour porpoise SACs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland marine areas. In addition, guidance on noise management in harbour porpoise SACs (JNCC Report No. 654, 2020) was provided to ensure underwater noise remains within levels that do not affect a site’s integrity. The advice and guidance are the culmination of several years of inter-agency discussion as well as consultation with regulators, industry and Non-Governmental Organisations. JNCC, NE and DAERA are committed to periodically reviewing this advice to ensure it remains workable, effective and takes account of best-available evidence.


Advice on Operations

The Conservation Objectives and Advice on Operations document for the protected feature of the North Channel Approaches SAC outlines knowledge of the nature and extent of activities taking place at the time of writing which may have a significant impact on the feature for which a site has been selected.

The advice on operations is based on the knowledge of harbour porpoise of JNCC and The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) at the time of writing, and their sensitivities to pressures. For the most up-to-date information about harbour porpoise within the site and the spatial distribution, please see the Monitoring and Evidence section.

The advice on operations summarises ongoing activities occurring within or close to the site, with an assessment as to whether they pose a risk to harbour porpoise. This information is useful when assessing an activity, plan or project which may affect the protected features and JNCC has provided this to aid the cumulative assessment of impacts of human activities within the site. While every attempt has been made to ensure this information is accurate and kept up-to-date, the list is not to be considered exhaustive or definitive. The list does not, for example, include activities occurring off-site which may also be capable of affecting the protected features.  

The information contained within the Conservation Objectives and Advice on Operations document and other documents in the Relevant Documentation section should be referred to if you are:

  • Carrying out any activity that may impact the site and need to find out how to operate within the law;
  • An authority providing advice on specific proposals; and/or 
  • An authority responsible for putting management measures in place.

To ensure the site contributes in the best possible way to achieving Favourable Conservation Status, the Relevant and Competent Authorities should consider the need for managing human activities within their remit which might affect (directly or indirectly) the integrity of the site, with regards to its Conservation Objectives. JNCC, along with other statutory nature conservation bodies (SNCBs), advises those authorities on the need for managing activities.

Our scientific understanding of the ecology of the site, its integrity and its qualifying feature and how activities can affect it may change over time. Conservation advice provided by JNCC and DAERA will be kept under review and will be periodically updated to reflect this and surveillance required under Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended). Conservation advice for sites which straddle the 12 nm boundary will continue to be developed jointly with the relevant country nature conservation body (CNCB).



Monitoring and Evidence

Last updated: March 2023


Site Identification and Selection

A range of data underpin this SAC as described below. Given the extensive range and mobility of harbour porpoise, analyses to underpin site identification were completed at a UK scale; localised datasets were not used in isolation to define the boundaries of this SAC. Two types of data have been analysed to investigate harbour porpoise persistent densities in UK waters; these are effort-related sea-based data (collected from ships and aircraft) and effort-related land-based data (collect from coastal locations).

The Joint Cetacean Protocol (JCP), when created in 2004, represented one of the largest collations of standardised survey data on harbour porpoise in the world. Comprising 39 data sources with data from at least 545 distinct survey platforms (ships and aircraft), representing over 1 million km of survey effort (coverage) over an 18-year period from 1994–2011. Survey data collated through the Joint Cetacean Protocol (JCP) were analysed to identify discrete and persistent areas of high harbour porpoise density in UK waters (JNCC Report 544, 2015). The survey data analyses underpinned the identification of the North Channel SAC as an area with persistently higher density of porpoises in relation to other areas.

For further information on the data used and the process applied to identify the SAC, please consult the North Channel SAC Selection Assessment Document, and Section two of ‘The use of harbour porpoise sightings data to inform the development of Special Areas of Conservation in UK waters’ (JNCC Report No. 565). Further documents in support of the identification of the North Channel SAC are also listed in the Relevant Documentation section.



JNCC is currently leading on the development of a strategy for biodiversity monitoring across all UK waters, to include Marine Protected Area (MPA) monitoring. For MPAs, data and evidence collected from monitoring activities will aim to:

  • Enable assessment of the status 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 SAC will be provided here when it becomes available.

The UK Marine Strategy (UKMS) is a three part framework for achieving good environmental status (GES) in our seas. It is comprised of an assessment of current state of current state, updated on a 6 year cycle. In addition the strategy provides  a guide to UK marine monitoring programmes and a programme of measures to gauge progress towards GES. The assessment was last updated in 2019 and work is currently underway to develop the next stage of UKMS. 


Monitoring Programmes

This section details ongoing marine monitoring programmes in the UK. Though these programmes are not focused on the SAC area, the outputs can be used to understand the status of the site and harbour porpoise.

There have been several wide scale dedicated surveys for monitoring the distribution and abundance of cetaceans in UK waters, namely Small cetaceans in the European Atlantic and North Sea (SCANS) and Cetacean Offshore Distribution and Abundance in the European Atlantic (CODA). The surveys provide robust estimates of abundance for use in status and impact assessments. The survey cycle for widescale UK cetacean surveys is outlined below.

Year Survey Link
2022 SCANS IV Currently underway
2007 CODA Cetacean Offshore Distribution and Abundance (2009)
2005 SCANS II Cetacean Abundance and Distribution (2013)
1994 SCANS Updated analysis within Cetacean Abundance and Distribution (2013)

The Joint Cetacean Data Programme (JCDP) vision is to standardise and improve access to cetacean surveys data from across the Northeast Atlantic. The JCDP aims to provide a wider evidence base for site assessments as the resource grows.

The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) has led the recording and investigation of stranded cetaceans in England since 1990. The programme is responsible for monitoring general health as well as pressures from bycatch, pollution and infectious disease.

The UK Bycatch Monitoring Programme is run by the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) and deploys on-board observers onto fishing vessels to monitor bycatch events of selected protected species.

Clean Catch UK is a collaborative research programme aimed at reducing and eliminating accidental capture of wildlife in the UK fishing industry.

Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) and Inshore Vessel Monitoring Systems (I-VMS) are used to monitor fishing activities in UK waters. 

The Marine Noise Registry was developed by Defra and the JNCC to record impulsive noise arising from human activities in UK seas. It aims to quantify the pressure on the environment of relevant impulsive sound sources throughout the year. This in turn aids the definition of baseline levels for impulsive noise in UK waters.


Relevant Documentation

Some documents linked below relating to the North Channel SAC were produced during the selection and designation process and therefore may not be updated from point of designation in January 2017. This Site Information Centre is the most up-to-date source of information for this site and will reflect any additional information gathered since our advice to Government in September 2016.

Conservation advice documents:

Evidence documents:

Site identification and selection process documents:

Knowledge gaps

If you are aware of any additional data or relevant scientific papers for this site made available since 2011 that we may not be aware of, please contact us. Please note that due to the process of identifying boundaries, data are unlikely to impact the boundaries of the site, but may be used to support management decisions.


Published: .

Reviewed: .

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.

Contact Us
Back to top