Donegal to Sligo Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation

Size of the area: 1,433km² //  0.29% of Ireland’s Maritime Area 

The coast from south Donegal to Sligo 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. 

Donegal to Sligo Area of Interest for Marine protected Area Designation

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

The Donegal to Sligo Area of Interest is home to many breeding seabirds as well as endangered sharks, skates and rays. Some areas potentially act as nursery grounds for bottlenose dolphins and their calves. While Minke whales seem to favour the waters around St. Johns Point. Many Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) already exist within the Donegal to Sligo Area of Interest. Creating a larger MPA would connect these smaller protected sites and allow for an interconnected network of protection for the wider ecosystem. The Area of Interest stretches from Glencolumbkille in Donegal to Easky in county Sligo and would cover a stretch of sea the size of 112 GAA pitches. 

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

You can download this as a printable poster here.

Fair Seas infographic Donegal to Sligo Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation

Elasmobranches (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras)

Eight species of elasmobranches have been recorded in one area of inner Donegal bay. These include threatened species such as spurdog, thornback ray, tope and flapper skate. High numbers of spurdog and thornback skate were especially noticed. 

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) 

Between 2005 and 2021, eight different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been recorded in this area. Bottlenose dolphins were recorded along the coast, with high numbers seen off St. Johns Point and Mullaghmore, and in Sligo Bay. June to August seems to be the busiest time for dolphins visiting this area. 

A number of studies show Donegal Bay is well known for the presence of bottlenose dolphins. Photo identification has shown the same individuals use this bay on a regular basis. A study by Milaja Nykänen from UCC estimated that in 2014 189 individuals used the waters between the Mullet Peninsula and Donegal Bay. They also stated that while calves were encountered on most occasions, six calves were observed in Donegal Bay – the highest number recorded throughout the study. This study might indicate that Donegal Bay is an important site for mother bottlenose dolphins and their calves. Calves, like young children, are still learning and therefore it’s very important that we look after the nursery grounds they grow up in.

Bottlenose Dolphins by Sibéal Regan

The same individual dolphins are seen year on year in this area, in scientific terms this is called ‘site-fidelity’, which indicates that for one reason or another this area is important to them. Fewer harbour porpoises were recorded in this Area of Interest than in others, although, they are recorded here all year long. Common dolphins in contrast were found throughout this area.  Minke whales seem to be particularly high in numbers around St. John’s Point, compared to relatively low numbers observed across the rest of this area. Other species that have been recorded visiting the area include recent sightings of humpback whales, killer whales and Risso’s dolphins. 

Commercially Exploited Species 

Whiting spawn here from the northern coast of Mayo all the way to Donegal. A small herring spawning ground is also located near Killybegs and larger nursery grounds are located north of Sligo Bay and west of Donegal town. 

While there is currently no evidence of spawning site fidelity for sprat, high catches of juvenile sprat are observed in Marine Institute groundfish surveys in this area. A large proportion of sprat landings come from Donegal Bay (Marine Institute, 2021). The protection of sprat is important, as it is a primary food source for many seabirds and cetaceans.


The Donegal to Sligo Area of Interest supports several important seabird colonies. Inishmurry is a small Island off the coast of Stredagh, Co. Sligo. The island is only 1700 metres long by 700 metres wide, yet it supports 8% of Ireland’s breeding shag population. The island is also a breeding site for lesser black-backed gulls and greater black-backed gulls. Ardboline and Horse Island are also known breeding sites for cormorants. Many other species occupy areas all along the sheltered coastline including kittiwake (~500 breeding pairs), razorbill (~90 pairs) and European storm-petrel (~280 pairs).

Shag by Tom Ormond

Fair Seas published the report Revitalising Our Seas in June 2022 and identified sixteen areas of interest for potential Marine Protected Area designation in Irish waters. The report aims to help kickstart the conversation around MPAs within the government and among stakeholders. MPAs can help to restore life in our seas to what they once were and can benefit coastal fisheries and local economies. 

To read the full description of the ‘Donegal to Sligo Area of Interest’ please click here to view the PDF version. 

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

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