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Frequently Asked Questions and Glossary

Coral Gardens, copyright JNCCMarine Protected Areas - Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Marine Protected Area?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) uses the following description:

Any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.

Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area, or more simply MPA, is the term used to refer to MPAs which will be established in Scotland’s seas for biodiversity and geodiversity.

Why do we need MPAs and a network of sites?

The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, as well as the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, requires that Scottish Ministers designate Nature Conservation MPAs as a contribution to a UK-wide network. Our contribution must be representative of the features found in our seas.

We also have international commitments to deliver a network of MPAs under:

  • the OSPAR convention
  • the World Summit on Sustainable Development
  • the Convention on Biological Diversity
  • the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive

Which sites make up the Scottish MPA network?

  • The new Nature Conservation MPAs
  • Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) as required by the EU Habitats Directive
  • Special Protection Areas (SPAs), as required by the EU Wild Birds Directive
  • Marine components of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)
  • Area-based measures which are designed for purposes other than marine nature conservation may also contribute to the network

What are the benefits of the MPA network?

  • The benefits generated by the MPAs would mostly accrue to services dependent on healthy and productive seas, such as fisheries, ecotourism, and recreational activities, in particular sea-angling and diving.
  • Other non-quantified benefits of the network, relating mainly to ecosystem services we rely on, include:
  • Greater productivity of fish for human and non-human consumption;
  • Gas and climate change regulation (such as kelp acting as carbon buffers);
  • Natural hazard protection (such as reefs acting as storm barriers to reduce coastal flooding);
  • Regulation of pollution;
  • Research and education; and
  • Cultural identity.

What MPAs have been designated?

30 Marine Protected Areas designated on 24 July 2014; 17 are in inshore territorial waters and 13 in offshore waters.  They will be incorporated into the National Marine Plan alongside existing protected areas.

The MPAs will protect 41 species and habitats, including flameshell beds, feather stars, common skate and ocean quahog, a large mollusc which can live for centuries.  They will also protect sandeels, a small fish many seabirds and marine mammals depend on for food, and black guillemot, the only seabird not currently protected under EU Habitats and Birds Directive in a Special Protected Area.

How much of the sea do the MPAs protect?

These MPAs brings the total marine protected area (includes SACs, SPAs and SSSIs too) coverage to 20% of our seas, which is within the targets that have been highlighted by scientists under international conservation agreements.

What is the largest protected area?

The largest MPA is North-east Faroe Shetland Channel – at approximately 23,000 km2.  This makes it the largest MPA in the EU, beating our own record of the previous largest protected area of Hatton Bank SAC.  The MPA is almost the size of the Scottish Highlands and roughly the size of Belize!

Where can I get more information on the network?

In addition to information already contained on the Marine Scotland, SNH, JNCC, SEPA, and Historic Scotland websites, more detail on the scientific process and the individual sites can be found on the Scottish Natural Heritage and Joint Nature Conservation Committee websites.

What is the difference between Nature Conservation MPAs and European Marine Sites,  such as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs)?

Nature Conservation MPAs can be established under the Marine (Scotland) Act and the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act. SACs and SPAs are established and managed under the EU Habitats and Wild Birds Directives. MPAs can protect species and habitats not protected by EU Directives.

What is a feature or search feature?

'Feature' is the collective term for species, habitats and geology we are looking to protect in the MPA network. Before we knew where the MPA proposals would most likely be, these same features were known as ‘search features’ as these are what were being searched for.

Which seas are covered by the Scottish MPA Project?

The Scottish MPA Project covers Scottish territorial waters and  the Scottish offshore region from the coast out to median lines or the UK Continental Shelf limit where applicable.

Selection Process

Are the MPA selection guidelines the same as the guidelines for the UK’s Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs)?

No. However, all the guidance documents have all been developed from the same OSPAR principles relating to an ecologically coherent network.

Is the selection process in Scotland the same as the processes being used in England and Wales?

No. The selection process in Scotland is being undertaken at a national level. Nature Conservation MPAs will be based primarily on scientific evidence using the MPA selection guidelines.

Has a target been set for the percentage of sea that should be included within MPAs?

The Scottish Government has no such targets.

What is the difference between the Marine (Scotland) Act and the Marine and Coastal Access Act?

The Marine (Scotland) Act provides powers to designate MPAs out to 12nm, and the Marine and Coastal Access Act provides powers to designate out to the rest of Scottish waters. The acts were respectively put in place in 2010 and 2009.

Have targets been set for how much of each feature should be included within the MPA network?

Individual targets have not been set for MPA species or habitats within the network. The assessment will take account of the geographic range and variation of a feature, threatened and/or declining status, and the need for replication. For some features it will also consider connectivity or linkages between MPAs within the network.

How is information being gathered to support the selection of MPAs?

We have gathered data on biodiversity from a wide range of sources, and data mined existing data gathered for other purposes to extract biodiversity information. During 2010 and 2011 we also carried out surveys of a variety of locations in our seas.

How aligned to science has the process been?

The Scottish Government was confident in the advice they received from SNH and JNCC, and to round off the process Marine Scotland commissioned an independent scientific review of the recommendations on MPA designations and the scientific evidence supporting the designations of MPAs in Scottish offshore & territorial waters.  The findings of the review supported the approach to network design and the case for designation of individual MPAs, as well as suggesting that some of the alternatives be designated along with the minimum of the 29 MPAs.

Stakeholder Engagement

Can people put forward their own proposals for Nature Conservation MPAs?

Third parties had the opportunity to propose Nature Conservation MPAs and these were considered alongside those proposed by SNH and JNCC as part of the national selection process.

How many of these Third Party Proposals have been submitted and how have they been considered?

A total of 27 proposals for third-party Nature Conservation MPAs were received prior to closure of submissions in early May 2012. Of the third-party submissions, 12 met all the relevant guidelines and contributed to the development of eight of the Nature Conservation MPAs designated on the 24th July, 2014.  A further three of the third-party proposals contributed to the development of three of the four MPA proposals (primarily for mobile species) that are the subject of the latest advice from SNH.

Twelve third-party proposals were not recommended for further consideration, as these proposals did not meet the Selection Guidelines.

What opportunities have there been for people to have a say in the selection of MPAs?

A total of 56 drop-in events were held across Scotland during the consultation and the main points raised were considered during the final decision making in designating the MPAs.  Before and after the consultation, Marine Scotland officials undertook a programme of 18 regional and local events to gather views from those with the greatest direct interest in the designations.

And before this 5 national workshops were held between 2011 – 2012 where views from all sectors informed the development of the initial MPA search locations.

In addition, we have engaged directly with marine interests and industry at the national level through the Marine Strategy Forum, which meet several times a year and have had MPAs as a standing item on the agenda.

What opportunities will there be for people to have a say in the selection of MPAs?

We will continue engagement with stakeholders through regular quarterly bi-laterals with key organisations, open invitations to anyone else who would like to discuss anything on MPAs with us, and regular sectoral meetings, as well as regional visits regarding future designations.

Seabirds in the Network

What is being done to protect seabirds in the network?

There are currently 47 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the EU Wild Birds Directive, and a further 17 SSSIs already providing protection of seabirds in the MPA network. These protect every one of the 24 nationally important species of breeding seabird. Work is also progressing to identify further locations in the marine environment that meet the criteria for consideration as Special Protection Areas for seabirds and waterfowl for critical activities such as foraging.

How are seabirds protected in the network?

6 MPAs for black guillemot have been designated, as well as 4 MPAs for kelp and seaweed communities on sublittoral sediment which provide food for the black guillemot.

3 inshore and offshore MPA proposals for sandeels have been designated in recognition of the importance of preserving the species in its own right but also given the importance of sandeels for key seabird species. In addition we are designating several MPAs for sand and gravel habitats which are critical habitats of species such as sandeel, including Firth of Forth.

Is more going being done for seabirds in addition to the wide protection they already have?

14 marine dSPAs in Scottish waters are currently being considered by the Scottish Government over the next few months.  The dSPAs are for a combination of foraging areas, inshore wintering waterfowl, seabird aggregations, and migratory species.

We are confident that, combined with the existing 47 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for colonies of seabirds, the new MPAs and these additional SPAs, that all seabirds in Scotland, such as these species, would be adequately protected.

How will MPAs benefit sandeel?

The inclusion of 3 MPAs for sandeel and several for sandeel habitats in the MPA network is to ensure a sustained supply of sandeel recruits to other sandeel grounds around Scotland and the rest of the UK, as the MPA proposals for sandeels represent a source of sandeels to other grounds.  By protecting the sources of sandeel in Scottish waters, MPAs may help conserve the current overall population of sandeels, including those in the marine waters of the Forth.

Cetacean and Basking Sharks in the Network

What is a cetacean?

The collective term for any marine mammal in the family of whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

What protection is there already for cetaceans and basking shark?

All species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are already protected by the EC Habitats Directive throughout Scottish waters and UK offshore waters out to 200 nm.

Some of our marine mammal populations, such as seals, are already well represented in the network through Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) designated under the EU Habitats Directive, as well as the Moray Firth SAC for its resident pod of bottlenose dolphin.

In addition 194 seal haul-out sites were designated through The Protection of Seals(Designation of Haul-Out Sites) (Scotland) Order 2014 on 26 June 2014.

What work is being done to support the inclusion of cetaceans in the network?

Correctly identifying critical areas for mobile species is more challenging than for low mobility or static features, and therefore required this extra work to be sure we are looking in the right places.  It is the scientific opinion of our nature advisers and the independent scientific review that a network that does not include these species would be incomplete and we agree with this, but also appreciate the need for sufficient evidence to support their inclusion.

What work is being done to support the inclusion of basking sharks in the network?

Part of this work by SNH and the University of Exeter was a basking shark tagging project funded by Marine Scotland that ran over 2 years that tagged over 51 sharks. The study found that the seas between the islands of Skye and Mull on Scotland’s west coast are highly important for basking sharks.

Will there be MPAs for cetaceans and basking shark?

Work on search locations for key habitats for other species (minke whale, Risso’s dolphin, as well as for basking shark) has recently concluded in 2014.  It advises that a further four sites could benefit species of whales, dolphins and sharks.  After further research, SNH has published advice on a further four MPA proposals for Minke whales, Risso’s dolphins and basking sharks, species which are not included in the suite of 30 sites.

The new sites are in the Sea of the Hebrides, at North-east Lewis, the Southern Trench and Shiant East Bank, in the North Minch. We are considering this advice which may become the subject of a future public consultation.


Is the whole of an MPA protected or just the features in the MPA?

The aim of the MPAs is to conserve or allow for the recovery of marine flora and fauna, and it was considered prudent both from the an ecological and a practical perspective to identify MPA for multiple features.  As such the priority is on conserving or recovering the features within the MPAs and the principle of sustainable use allows for appropriate activities to continue in the rest of the MPA.

Is an MPA the same thing as a no take zone (NTZ) or ‘no go’ area for fishing and other activities?

No. MPAs will be managed using the principle of sustainable use. 

Can MPAs be used to manage fisheries?

MPA measures are not a fisheries management tool. Mechanisms already exist for that purpose. However, fisheries restrictions are required at most MPAs.

Could some MPAs be designated for fish?

Yes, fish being used to underpin the selection of MPAs include orange roughy, blue ling, common skate and sandeels.

Will fishing activity be restricted within MPAs?

There will be a presumption of use within an MPA so long as the conservation objectives of a site can be met. However, specific activities which pose a significant risk to a protected feature will be managed.

How will the effects on fishing of designating an MPA be considered?

Throughout the Scottish MPA Project, discussions continue to be held with fishing interests to ensure there is good understanding of the features (habitats, wildlife, geology and undersea landforms) and fishing activities associated with specific search locations or potential MPAs. Alongside any advice that is given to Scottish Ministers on the natural heritage interest of a potential area we will continue to produce Impact Assessments, which considers the potential effects (whether beneficial or adverse) on existing activities. Marine Scotland is responsible for the production of Impact Assessments.

Is the aim of an MPA to restrict fishing activity?

No. The aim of an MPA is to ensure that its conservation objectives are being met and that it continues to make its contribution to the wider MPA network.

Can information from fishermen be considered during the selection of MPAs?

Yes. Marine Scotland is currently developing a standard method for gathering information on inshore fishing activity in Scotland’s seas. This will mean we can work with the industry to ensure there is a good understanding of fishing activity, particularly by those vessels not covered by VMS (i.e. those under 15m). JNCC is currently working to improve information on the activities undertaken by both UK and non-UK fishing fleets.

Where new MPA designations restrict fishing activity, will these rules apply to non-UK fleets too?

Under current arrangements in waters where EU fleets have access, we would have to apply for non-discriminatory fisheries restrictions via the Common Fisheries Policy if new fisheries management was needed to protect an MPA.

Can MPAs and renewable energy developments co-exist?

Yes. As with fishing or indeed any current activity, there is no presumption against use and co-location so long as the conservation objectives of a site can be met. Management may be required on a case-by-case basis depending on species or habitat sensitivity.

What are the main management principles with regard to renewables?

The current policy approach is that if developments have an insignificant effect on MPAs, developers will not be required to consider effects on Nature Conservation MPAs any further, and there would be no retrospective review of existing consents once MPAs are designated.

Since March 2012 Marine Scotland has requested that all EIAs from developers also consider proposed MPAs and search locations.

How will MPAs be monitored and policed?

In our view one of the best ways of protecting MPA features is to promote a culture of compliance.  Stakeholders have been able to contribute to the process of identifying MPAs and we are confident they support protection of these features.

In addition to fostering this understanding of the importance to everyone of having a healthy and productive marine environment, we will apply an effective, on-going monitoring regime to marine protected areas. This will involve routine assessment of fishing activities in and around the sites and a bespoke, site specific approach where such measures are necessary.