What is a ‘Marine Protected Area’ and how does it relate to a ‘Special Area of Conservation’ or a ‘Special Protection Area’? 

SAC, SPA, MPA, and NHA: The various types of spatial protection measures in Ireland can be confusing. In this blog, we’ll do our best to explain these terms one by one. 

Let’s start with MPA – a Marine Protected Area. 

This is an umbrella term which describes parts of the ocean that are protected by either voluntary agreements, or national and international law to conserve the species, habitats, ecosystems and ecosystem processes within. This is achieved by restricting or prohibiting certain human activities which might negatively impact on the species or habitats that occur in and around the protected area. Examples of MPAs in Ireland include Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), whereas in parts of the UK, Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) are a common MPA type.

The level of management in MPAs can take on many forms. There are fully protected areas (also sometimes called no-take zones), highly protected areas, lightly protected areas and minimally protected areas. The level of protection clarifies how well the area is protected from the main types of extractive or destructive human activities which would otherwise occur there unrestricted. Generally speaking, the higher the level of protection, the better the outcome for biodiversity. Watch the video below for an explainer of these MPA types provided by The MPA Guide

Compared to other European and International countries, Ireland is currently playing catch-up with regard to the percentage of its waters that are designated as MPAs. The main reason for this is that there is no legal definition of a MPA in Irish law, nor are there the legal mechanisms to designate any MPAs other than those listed below. 

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs)

Two types of MPAs that Ireland is currently able to designate are Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). These are designated under EU nature laws (the Habitats and Birds Directives) and are designed to meet very specific conservation objectives for a limited number of habitats and species. SACs can be designated, for example, to protect a reef, sea caves or bottlenose dolphins. They can’t, however, be designated for species not specifically listed by the EU directives, such as sharks and other marine fish. SPAs on the other hand are designated strictly for the protection of birds. SAC and SPA designations can therefore overlap with each other if an area is deemed important for birds listed in the Birds Directive and marine species or habitats listed in the Habitats Directive (see the map below of Blacksod Bay as an example). SPAs are sometimes very small and spatially restricted to cliffs and islands to protect breeding seabird colonies. In future, it will be important to expand the SPA network to also include seabird foraging habitats at sea.   


While SACs and SPAs can be great tools to protect and restore parts of the environment, the benefits of the existing designations in Ireland have been minimal due to poor implementation of policy and lack of management. Ireland has not fully implemented the EU nature laws which underpin our SACs and SPAs, and the lack of effective management has caused 65% of coastal marine habitats within SACs to be in unfavourable condition. 

SACs and SPAs currently cover around 2.1% of the Irish maritime area. You may have heard that Ireland has committed to scaling up its protected area coverage to 30% by 2030 – which means there will be a 15-fold increase in protected area coverage within this decade. Once the national legislation for marine protected areas comes into force, Ireland will be able to start designating new MPAs that can protect a greater and more representative array of Ireland’s biodiversity than what’s currently possible within the existing SACs and SPAs. 

Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs), Refuges for Fauna, and Nature Reserves

There are three more types of legal protection measures in Ireland – Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs), Refuges for Fauna, and Nature Reserves. These are designated under the Wildlife Acts 1976-2018 and can have marine and coastal elements. The geographical scope of the Wildlife Acts is limited to the area within 12 nautical miles from the coast, so for the vast majority of Irish marine space, these designations are not applicable (see map below).

Nature Reserves and Refuges for Fauna all overlap with the network of SACs and SPAs. The Lough Hyne Nature Reserve in Cork is one of 13 Nature Reserves with a marine component. Lough Hyne is Ireland’s only MPA that could be described as being highly protected. Natural Heritage Areas have not been established for marine habitats to date. 

For the moment, SACs and SPAs are the only types of legal protected area designations available between 12 nautical miles and 200 nautical miles from the Irish coastline. This is a big problem because of the limited number of habitats and species that SACs can be designated for. For example, much of the Irish continental shelf seabed is made up of sediment, but deep mud, sand, or gravel habitats are not listed in the Habitats Directive. Therefore, a large part of the seabed in Irish waters cannot be protected under current legislation.  


A final type of protected area we will mention here are MPAs designated under the Regional Seas Convention for the Northeast Atlantic (OSPAR). There are 19 OSPAR MPAs in Irish waters, but as there is no legislation to legally underpin MPA commitments under international law, all OSPAR MPAs currently overlap with SACs. 

So, all in all, SAC, SPA, MPA, and NHA, what do they all mean?

All the various types of protected area designations in theory have the capacity to help biodiversity by protecting species or habitats in our ocean. However, the effective management, monitoring and enforcement of these protected areas is the key factor to improving the case for nature within them. Significant gaps exist within Ireland’s current network of MPAs and it is crucial that the drafting of national MPA legislation is prioritised at government level to fill these gaps. 

Fair Seas is calling for the Irish government to stick to its commitment of having 30% of our ocean within MPAs by 2030. We are also encouraging them to use an ‘ecosystem-based approach’ to MPAs. This means that rather than just protecting one specific species or habitat (as in SACs and SPAs), that protection can be given to the wider ecosystem these species or habitats rely on and interact with. This would mean protecting the food source that species rely on in an area, protecting species and habitats from disturbance and harm from the rocks they nest on to the waters they swim and hunt in. Using an ecosystem-based approach to MPAs we can ensure that the complex balance in the ocean is restored. 

Having an effective and well-managed network of MPAs in Irish waters will benefit biodiversity, store carbon and can have added benefits for our coastal communities. Benefits to coastal communities can include increases in fish stocks and higher levels of ecotourism in local areas because of healthier marine wildlife populations. If you would like to learn more about the legal background of marine protected areas in Ireland, please see Sarah Ryan Enright’s excellent Legal Handbook.

Keep up to date with Fairseas and MPA news and developments, by subscribing up to our newsletter here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

We also welcome you to join us in Cork on 8th June, where we are hosting our inaugural World Ocean Day conference. We are bringing ocean advocates, government, industry and key stakeholders together to map out the next steps for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish waters.


Help us spread the word - please share!

  • img-18
  • img-19
  • img-20