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What is protected in MPAs?

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a globally recognised tool that can help support the conservation of marine habitats and species whilst promoting sustainable use. The aim of the UK network of MPAs is to protect the range of marine habitats and species for which MPAs are considered an appropriate conservation tool.

Supporting healthy and resilient ecosystems will increase their ability to respond and adapt to other impacts such as those of global climate change.

UK seas are home to a great variety of marine habitats and species; many of which are considered to be of European and international conservation importance. This includes vulnerable marine ecosystems such as underwater mountains called seamounts, cold-water coral reefs and deep-sea sponge aggregations. Topographic features such as reefs and sandbanks elevated from the seafloor provide a habitat for species, which in turn provide a food source for commercially important fish species, seabirds and marine mammals.

Different MPA designation types protect different habitats and species. Together MPAs complement each other to collectively create an MPA network that protects both characteristic habitats present in UK waters as well as some of its more charismatic habitats and species. 

An overview of the types of features protected within the UK MPA network in offshore waters is provided below:

Features protected within offshore Special Areas of Conservation


Sandbanks covered by seawater most of the time

Submarine structures made by leaking gases


Annex II features protected within offshore Special Areas of Conservation

Harbour porpoise


Broad-scale habitats and features of conservation importance protected within offshore Marine Conservation Zones

Cold-water coral reefs

Subtidal chalk

Deep-sea bed

Subtidal coarse sediment

Fan mussel (Atrina fragilis)

Subtidal mixed sediments

Moderate energy circalittoral rock

Subtidal mud

Ocean quahog (Arctica islandica)

Subtidal sand

Sea-pen and burrowing megafauna communities



Priority marine features protected within offshore Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas

Burrowed mud

Offshore subtidal sands and gravels

Deep sea sponge aggregations

Orange roughy

Ocean quahog aggregations


Offshore deep-sea muds

Seamount communities


Marine birds protected in Special Protection Areas which are fully or partly offshore

European storm petrel

Black-legged kittiwake

Red-billed chough*

Lesser black-backed gull

Short-eared owl*

Sandwich tern

Red-breasted merganser

Common tern

Great cormorant

Little tern

Red-throated diver

Common guillemot

Manx shearwater


Little gull

Atlantic puffin

Common scoter


*in terrestrial part of the Special Protection Area


Large-scale features, and geological and geomorphological features are also protected within Nature Conservation MPAs and MCZs.

Many of the habitats and species protected within the UK MPA network are listed by OSPAR as Threatened and/or Declining and so contribute to commitments under the OSPAR Convention.


About Marine Protected Areas

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