North Coast Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation.

The north Donegal coast was identified as a high biodiversity ‘Area of Interest’ for potential Marine Protected Area designation, in our recent report ‘Revitalising Our Seas. 

For the full site synopsis and references please find the relevant pages of the report PDF here.

Size of the area: 3,744km² //  0.77% of Ireland’s Maritime Area. 

Map of North Coast Area of Interest

Why was this area identified as a potential Marine Protected Area?

Ireland’s north coast is a wild, breathtaking and largely untamed place. So much so in fact, that in 2017 Donegal was named the world’s ‘coolest destination’ by National Geographic.  


Here’s an infographic summarising the key elements of this Area of Interest.

You can download this as a printable poster here.

A poster showing various dolphin, shark and seabird species that appear along Ireland's north coast including basking shark, orca, bottlenose dolphin and common dolphin.

Elasmobranches (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras)

Basking sharks are seen in large numbers along the north coast, especially around Malin Head. Between 60 to 75 individuals have been seen here in a single sighting. 

Marine Institute surveys found this area to have one of the highest average catches per haul of tope sharks. Globally tope sharks are classed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and classed as ‘vulnerable’ in Irish waters. The main threat to this species is overexploitation for commercial fishing as there is still allowable catch even though evidence shows the species is declining. 

Thornback skate are found across this area and Lough Swilly is a refuge site for the critically endangered flapper skate, the largest skate in the world, reaching up to 2.85 metres in length. The flapper skate was once the most common skate in the northeast Atlantic but due to overexploitation and habitat destruction, it has now disappeared from most of the areas it once lived. Protecting critical areas for these species could give them a true chance to come back from the brink.

Tope Shark by Andy Murch. A shark swims underwater, the watch is dark and the shark uses its left eye to get a look at the camera.
Tope Shark by Andy Murch

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) 

Bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises are found along the north coast year-round, with particularly high concentrations of both species at the mouth of Lough Swilly. 

Killer whales have been observed on seven occasions throughout the north coast, most frequently at the mouth of Lough Swilly. Further offshore, closer to the continental shelf edge, groups of 75 killer whales were recorded by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group Sightings Scheme. Recent research on the North Atlantic killer whale population suggests foraging movements from the southern coast of Norway to the northwest coast of Ireland around the pelagic trawl fisheries targeting mackerel and horse mackerel. 

Sightings of minke whales occurred along the coast of North Donegal, with higher densities recorded off Bloody Foreland. Occasional sightings have also been made of other species passing through the area including humpback whales, Risso’s dolphins, and common dolphins.

Commercially Exploited Species 

The largest herring spawning grounds in the country are located north of Donegal. Some of these grounds are located within this proposed MPA. Whiting spawning grounds also cover this entire area. Historic herring spawning grounds have disappeared from much of the Irish coast, therefore, we now have the chance to preserve the last of these areas to help rebuild numbers. 


The Cliffs from Horn Head to Fanad Head are home to important colonies of seabirds of high conservation concern such as kittiwakes, razorbills and puffins. Lough Swilly provides sanctuary for breeding terns, black guillemots and black-headed gulls. Tory Island and Inishtrahull are rich in seabird diversity. Bloody Foreland has been identified as of major importance to migrating birds with more than 31,000 seabirds and 24 species recorded over a four-year period. The waters in this area are also utilised by birds hailing from Scottish colonies.

Two seabirds a kittiwake and a puffin stare at each other while perched on a rock.
Kittiwake and Puffin, Birdwatch Ireland

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

Several small Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are already designated for reefs, large shallow inlets and bays, intertidal mudflats and sandflats, sea caves, estuaries and coastal lagoons in this area. This larger Area of Interest would create corridors between these SACs. Mulroy Bay, in particular, is a very important site for seabed habitats, with maerl, seagrass and horse mussels all recorded here.

We are recommending that the government use the ‘whole site approach’ when it comes to designating MPAs. This means that rather than just protecting an individual species in an area, that protection can be given to the wider ecosystem they rely on.  

The North Coast Area of Interest is abundant in marine life, including critically endangered species. By creating a Marine Protected Area biodiversity can have the chance to recover. As noted by Professor Mark Costello in the foreword of ‘Revitalising Our Seas’, “If properly planned, MPAs can lead to more stable and sustainable coastal fisheries, with added benefits of increased tourism and public enjoyment of marine life.

To read the full description of the ‘North Coast Area of Interest’ please click here or on the image below to view the PDF version. 




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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.

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