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The Canyons MPA

Please note, as of 13 June 2022, new fisheries management measures are in force for The Canyons Marine Conservation Zone. For more information about these fisheries measures, please visit the website.  Updated conservation advice will be provided in due course. 

Status: Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ)

The Canyons MCZ is located in the far south-west corner of the UK continental shelf and is unique within the context of England’s largely shallow seas due to its depth, sea-bed topography and the coral features it contains.




The Canyons MCZ is located in the far south-west corner of the UK continental shelf. The site lies at the edge of the shelf, which drops away steeply to the oceanic abyssal plain at 2,000 m, giving rise to features such as deep-sea bed, cold-water corals, coral gardens and sea-pen and burrowing megafauna communities. There are two large canyons within the site, which add to its topographic complexity: the Explorer Canyon to the north and the Dangaard Canyon below it. Cold-water corals (such as Lophelia pertusa) and Coral gardens have been found on the northernmost wall of the Explorer Canyon, which is the only known example of Cold-water corals recorded in England’s seas. Cold-water corals typically support a range of other species by providing a three-dimensional structure that can be used as shelter and an attachment surface.

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

Map displaying the The Canyons MPA boundary and associated protected feature data. Visit JNCC's MPA Mapper to further view and explore data for this MPA.

Map showing The Canyons Marine Protected Area and linking to the MPA mapper


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


Protected Features

Protected Feature Feature Type
Deep-sea bed Broad-Scale Habitat
Cold-water coral reefs Feature of Conservation Importance
Coral gardens Feature of Conservation Importance
Sea-pen and burrowing megafauna communities Feature of Conservation Importance

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 Monitoring and Evidence section.


Site Timeline

The diagram below is a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and designation of The Canyons MCZ.  More detail can be found within the Relevant Documentation section and Annex 3 of JNCC's Advice on possible offshore Marine Conservation Zones considered for consultation in 2015.

September 2011
Regional projects recommended a total of 127 Marine Conservation Zones (rMCZs) to Defra and the statutory nature conservation bodies (SNCBs).
July 2012
SNCB advice to Defra on the 127 recommended MCZs.
December 2012 – March 2013
Formal public consultation on 31 Tranche One rMCZs, The Canyons rMCZ included.
November 2013
Tranche One MCZ designations announced – The Canyons MCZ designated.
May 2019
Tranche Three MCZ designations announced. Two additional features for The Canyons MCZ designated.


Relevant Documentation

The documents referred to below and any other historical documents relating to The Canyons 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. Further information about the Marine Conservation Zone site selection process and historic MCZ advice is available on JNCC's MCZ webpage.

  • The latest factsheet, site map and Designation Order is available on Defra's website.
  • Site Summary Document – Summary of the key attributes of the site including boundaries, maps and descriptive text, produced as part of the site designation consultation package.
  • JNCC's formal conservation advice for this site is accessible through the Conservation Advice section.



Last updated: July 2020

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


Site Overview

The Canyons MCZ is located in the far south-west corner of the UK’s continental shelf, more than 330 km from Land’s End, Cornwall. It encompasses the steep part of the shelf break where the seabed drops from a depth of 100 m to the oceanic abyssal plain at 2,000 m. This makes the site unique within the context of England’s largely shallow seas. Within the site, there are two large canyons that indent the shelf break, adding to the topographic complexity of the sea floor: the Explorer Canyon to the north and the Dangaard Canyon to the south. On the northernmost wall of the Explorer Canyon is a patch of live Cold-water coral reef (Lophelia pertusa) and Coral gardens, both of which are a OSPAR threatened and/or declining habitat. This is the only known example of living Cold-water coral reef recorded within England’s seas, making it unique in these waters. Other patches of cold-water coral reefs in the UK occur along the continental shelf break off Scotland and Ireland.

Cold-water corals and Coral gardens typically support a range of other organisms. The coral provides a three-dimensional structure and a variety of microhabitats that provide shelter and an attachment surface for other species. Both Cold-water corals and Coral gardens can be long-lived but are extremely slow growing (at about 6 mm a year), making protection important for their conservation. Another reef-forming cold-water coral, Madrepora oculata, is also present in the site.

The majority of the seabed in this site occurs at depths of greater than 200 m. The variety of deep-sea bed communities present are indicative of the range of substrates found in and around the canyons, including bedrock, biogenic reef, coral rubble, coarse sediment, mud and sand. These biological communities include cold-water coral communities (Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata), Coral gardens,  feather star (Leptometra celtica) assemblages and Sea-pen and burrowing megafauna communities (including, burrowing anemone fields, squat lobster (Munida sp.) assemblages, barnacle assemblages and deep-sea sea-pen (Kophobelemnon sp.) fields). Further detail on the evidence for this MCZ can be found in the Monitoring and Evidence section.

Site location: Co-ordinates for this MCZ can be found in the Designation Order, available from Defra's MCZ webpage.

Site area: 661 km2.

Site depth range: Depth at the site ranges from 100 m below sea-level on the continental shelf to 2,000 m below sea-level on the deep seabed (a range of 1,900 m).

Charting Progress 2 Biogeographic Region: Western Channel and Celtic Sea.

Site boundary description: The boundaries were designed to encompass the steep part of the shelf break to cover areas of diverse seafloor habitat including sub-marine canyons and deep-sea coral habitats. The site is rectangular in shape, in line with Ecological Network Guidance (ENG) design principles. The northern and north-western boundary sections align with the UK Continental Shelf Limit. The western and eastern boundary sections were drawn as straight north–south lines. The southern boundary section was drawn to align with the old UK Continental Shelf Limit (pre-2014).


Monitoring and Evidence

Last updated: November 2023

The full overview of the data used to support site identification along with information on confidence in feature presence and extent is available in JNCC's advice on offshore MCZs proposed for designation in 2013 and JNCC's advice on offshore MCZs proposed for designation in 2019JNCC will be adding relevant survey data for this MPA to its MPA mapper in due course.

Some of the data for this MCZ 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

  • Haig Fras MCZ and the Canyons MCZ Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) survey JC166 (2018) – JNCC participated on this NERC survey to two MPAs in 2018. This survey completed ROV transects across different areas of both protected areas.
  • The Canyons MCZ Monitoring Survey CEND0917 (2017) – This survey was a collaboration between JNCC and Cefas aboard the RV Cefas Endeavour to gather evidence for monitoring of The Canyons MCZ. The data collected will form the first time point of a dedicated monitoring dataset and will be used in conjunction with other available evidence to inform reports on whether the MPA is meeting its conservation objectives. The cruise report will be made available in due course.
  • National Oceanography Centre (NOC), Cefas and JNCC joint survey to The Canyons MCZ (2015) – This collaborative survey funded by Defra undertook two dives in Explorer Canyon using a NOC remotely operated vehicle, targeting a known living cold-water coral reef and an area where reef is predicted to occur according to a high-resolution habitat distribution model (see Ross et al. 2015 in the Additional relevant literature). Multibeam echosounder bathymetry data were collected covering the majority of the deepest and southerly sections of the site, where high-resolution bathymetric data have not previously been obtained. The cruise report is currently in preparation and will be made available in due course.
  • MESH South West Approaches Canyons Survey (2007) – This collaborative survey (involving JNCC, the Marine Institute, the British Geological Survey and the University of Plymouth) collected high-quality acoustic data and took nearly 1,000 photos along 26 video transects to map the extent of deep-sea bed and cold-water coral reef habitats. The survey received Defra and European Regional Development Funding.


Data analysis reports

  • EUSeaMap – Provides supporting information on the presence and extent of the deep-sea bed in the deep circalittoral zone (below 200 m depth) from a predictive seabed habitat map of European waters.
  • NOC-Cefas-JNCC Survey (2015) – Currently being analysed to identify areas of cold-water corals inside the Explorer Canyon in the north of the site. In addition to two planned dives over areas of known and predicted coral reef, NOC carried out a third dive in the east of the canyon and are kindly making these data available to inform our understanding of the cold-water coral reef feature. The analysis will also complete a high-resolution bathymetric image of the seafloor for the majority of the site. Reporting will be made available in due course.
  • Creation of a high-resolution digital elevation model of the British Isles continental shelf (2011) – A Defra-commissioned modelling project undertaken by Ocean Wise Ltd/Astrium Geo-Information Services to create a bathymetry map of British seas, bringing together hydrographic survey data and chart data. The extent of deep-sea bed was defined by the 200 m depth contour in this dataset.
  • MESH South West Approaches Canyons Survey (2008) – Analysis of acoustic and seismic data to determine geomorphology and sedimentary processes; and analysis of video and photographic data to determine the biological communities (biotopes) living on the sea bed. These outputs were used to create broad-scale habitat and biotope maps.


Additional relevant literature

References for further supporting scientific literature consulted during the identification of this site can be found in the annexes of our MCZ advice. Please be aware that although these sources contain information which is of interest in relation to this MPA, they do not necessarily represent the views of JNCC:

  • Duineveld, G., Lavaleye, M., Berghuis, E. M., and de Wilde P. (2001) Activity and composition of the benthic fauna in the Whittard Canyon and the adjacent continental slope (NE Atlantic). Oceanologica Acta, 24: 69–83. – Describes the findings of a survey investigating benthic communities and transport of organic matter in the canyons along the shelf break. The survey provided records of live cold-water coral reef within the northern extent of the northernmost canyon contained within the site as well as extensive areas of coral reef rubble elsewhere, indicating that there may have been more extensive reefs in the past.
  • Ellis, J.R., Burt, G. and Rogers, S.I. (2007) Epifaunal sampling in the Celtic Sea. ICES ASC 2007. Theme Session A23. – This study undertook beam trawl groundfish surveys in 2000–2006 at the Canyons MCZ and elsewhere in the south-west offshore area. Along the edge of the continental shelf they found large numbers of the anemone Actinauge richardi, with the hermit crab Pagurus prideaux.
  • Flavell, B., Carr, H., Robson, L., Byford, S., Chaniotis, P., Last, E., Long, M., Matear, L. & Novak, E. (2020). Developing the evidence-base to support climate-smart decision making on MPAs. JNCC Report No. 648. JNCC, Peterborough, ISSN 0963-8091.
  • Howell, K.L., Davies, J.S and Narayanaswamy, B.E. (2010) Identifying deep-sea megafaunal epibenthic assemblages for use in habitat mapping and marine protected area network design. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 90: 33–68. – Biological data were collected as part of this study in June 2007 along the flanks of the canyons and video data revealed the deep-sea coral communities.
  • Henry, L-A. and Roberts, J.M. (2014). Developing an interim technical definition for Coral Gardens specific for UK waters and its subsequent application to verify suspected records. JNCC Report No. 507. Peterborough.
  • JNCC. (2020). Climate Profile Report Card: The Canyons MCZ. – developed to support the project 'Developing the evidence-base to support climate-smart decision making on MPAs', the profile provides summary information about the MPA, information on its provision of climate change related ecosystem services, and information on the potential response of these features to climate change as a result of sensitivity assessments.
  • Ross, L.K., Ross. R.E., Stewart, H.A. and Howell, K.L. (2015) The influence of data resolution on predicted distribution and estimates of extent of current protection of three ‘listed’ deep-sea habitats. PLoS One. – Presents a high-resolution model of Lophelia pertusa reef distribution along the continental shelf of Ireland and the western waters of the United Kingdom. The model found a high likelihood of cold-water coral reef at the western edges of the Dangaard and Explorer Canyons inside The Canyons MCZ. The model considered seabed depth, slope, rugosity and curvature to determine habitat suitability for Lophelia pertusa reef, and was informed by 222 video transects recording the presence or absence of coral reef at sampling stations along the shelf break in UK and Irish waters.


Knowledge gaps

As part of the UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS), JNCC led the development of a UK Marine Biodiversity Monitoring Strategy, working with partners across the UK monitoring community. The Strategy spans UK territorial and offshore waters, focusing on biodiversity in the wider environment and within Marine Protected Areas.  Its aim is to implement efficient, integrated monitoring of marine biodiversity to provide the evidence needed for all the UK's policy drivers.

The evidence collected during MPA monitoring surveys is used in combination with other available evidence to:

  • Enable assessment of condition of the features within sites;
  • Contribute to the 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.

More detail on offshore MPA monitoring can be found on the Offshore MPA monitoring webpage. A list of monitoring surveys and relevant reports can be found on the MPA monitoring survey reports webpage.

If you are aware of any additional information not referred to in any of the Relevant Documentation listed on the main page or the annexes of the MCZ advice documents, please contact us.


Conservation Advice

Last updated: August 2020

Updated formal conservation advice for this MPA was produced in August 2020.  Further information on the approach used to develop this advice is available on our 'Conservating MPAs' 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 MCZ 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 August 2020).  

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.

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

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 available on JNCC's Resource Hub.  


Activities and Management

Last updated: June 2017

Management status: Progressing towards being well managed.

The vulnerability assessment conducted for this site suggests it is unlikely to be moving towards its conservation objectives, but directed site condition monitoring data are needed to improve our confidence in this assessment. Progress is ongoing with regards to the recommendation of a fisheries management proposal.

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 The Canyons MCZ around each of the four stages in the MPA management cycle.


1. The documentation of appropriate management information

  • The conservation objectives and advice on activities and operations capable of affecting the conservation status of the protected features of this site are available under the Conservation Advice section. Further information is available on our Conservation Advice webpage.
  • Spatial information on the presence and extent of the protected features 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 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. 
  • 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 The Canyons 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.


  • There is one telecommunications cable in the south-east corner of the site which is currently out of service.
  • 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.


  • There is low-density international shipping in this area, including cargo vessels and tankers. Anchorage is unlikely due to the site’s offshore location.
  • Under international law (UNCLOS, Article 17), ships have a right of innocent passage at sea, including in areas designated as MPAs. The pressures associated with shipping activity within The Canyons MCZ are not considered likely to impact the protected features of the site.

Military activity

  • The site occupies a small part of a very large training area south-west of the UK.
  • The MoD has incorporated all designated MPAs into their Environmental Protection Guidelines (Maritime) and wider Marine Environmental and Sustainability Assessment Tool. These guidelines are used to manage MoD activity to minimise the associated risks to the environment.


3. Site condition monitoring

A summary of our existing knowledge base is provided in the Monitoring and Evidence section.  A site condition monitoring survey visited the site in spring 2017, the findings are not yet available but will be reported in the Monitoring and Evidence section in due course.


4. Assessment of progress towards conservation objectives

No long-term condition monitoring data are available and management measures are not yet in place. The vulnerability assessment suggests that both protected features have a 'recover' general management approach and therefore are unlikely to be moving towards achieving their conservation objectives. However, progress is ongoing with regards to the recommendation of a fisheries management proposal.



Published: .

This Site Information Centre (SIC) was created 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 created. These references will be revised as necessary when the SIC is next substantially revised. Requirements through EU legislation are retained in the UK so existing environmental protections and standards remain, and the protection given to habitats and species continues.

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