Southwest Coast Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation 

Size of the area: 7,333km²

The southwest coast of Ireland 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. 

Southwest Coast Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation

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

Whales, whales and more whales. Our analysis has shown the waters off West Cork to be a real hotspot for the largest whales that visit our coast with the highest numbers of fin whales and Risso’s dolphins seen here. The waters off the southwest coast provide spawning and nursery grounds for commercially important fish species and act as a major migration route for all kinds of seabirds. 

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 whale, dolphin and seabird species that appear along Ireland's south coast including fin whale, minke whale, rissos dolphin and common dolphin.

Elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras)

This area has the highest amount of basking shark sightings in the country, with over 30% of all sightings recorded from this area. Single sightings often report multiple individuals, mostly between 10 and 20, and one sighting recorded the highest number of individuals ever recorded of around 100 sharks seen south of Rosscarbery. 

Basking Shark fin courtesy of Irish Basking Shark Group

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) 

The highest number of fin whales recorded in Irish waters are seen within the ‘Southwest Coast Area of Interest’. 6,123 individual fin whales have been recorded in the area between 2005 and 2021. This accounts for 49% of all the fin whales seen around Ireland. Another gentle giant seen off Ireland’s Southwest coast is the humpback whale. More and more people are getting the chance to see these incredibly charismatic animals with their own eyes with 2,747 individuals seen off the southwest between 2005 and 2021. These ocean giants flock to our waters to feed. Humpback and fin whales are filter-feeding ‘Baleen’ or ‘Rorqual’ whales. They feed on small fish like sprat and sand eels or on plankton. 

The highest numbers of Risso’s Dolphins are seen in the area with a whopping 3,904 individuals recorded in the same periods as above (2005 – 2021). Minke whales are a common sight to keen-eyed coast goers in this area with harbour porpoises and common dolphins also regularly seen. 

Some common dolphin sightings note that groups of up to 2,000 individuals have been seen at any one time. This is what is sometimes called a ‘super pod’. Between 2005 and 2021 55% of all the individual common dolphins recorded in Ireland were seen off the southwest coast totalling a staggering 296,489 individuals! Eight encounters of common dolphins with calves were observed predominantly during the month of October. 

Cork Harbour is home to a resident group of eight bottlenose dolphins. These local individuals are related to the dolphins of the Shannon SAC on the west coast. A solitary dolphin also calls Cork Harbour home. 

Killer whales were recorded in this area sporadically as well as Atlantic white-sided dolphins and long-finned pilot whales.

Commercially exploited species

A large whiting spawning and nursery ground passes through this area. There are also several small herring spawning and nursery grounds and a large haddock spawning ground is located around 13km off the southwest coastline. 

While there is currently no evidence of spawning site fidelity for sprat, high catches of juveniles are observed in groundfish surveys in this area (Marine Institute, 2021). A large proportion of sprat landings are from inner Bantry and Kenmare Bays, including in Kenmare River SAC. Protection of sprat is important, as it is a primary food source for many seabirds and cetaceans. 

Habitats and seabed features

Bantry, Kenmare and Roaringwater bays are very diverse in terms of seabed habitats. There are several seagrass beds along this stretch of coast that are not currently protected, including several inside Bantry Bay. 

Also of note are the rich kelp forests within Bantry Bay and along the south coast which urgently need protection. The south coast has few Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), and all are very small inshore sites. This represents a major gap in Ireland’s inshore MPA network. By creating an MPA in this area we have the opportunity to link up these SACs and to afford protection to the wider ecosystem that supports an incredible array of marine life. 

Kelp by Benjamin Davies


This Area of Interest is one of the most diverse areas for seabird species in Ireland. It acts as a virtual gateway for seabirds travelling to Ireland, as the ocean’s currents split here with water either heading up the west coast or alternatively along the south coast. This phenomenon attracts a high diversity of seabird species, offering easy access and transit to many rich coastal habitats like those found in Roaringwater Bay and Bantry Bay. 

Bull Rock is one of the six gannet colonies (gannetries) in Ireland, and Cape Clear is an important migration bottleneck region. There have also been sightings of the critically endangered Balearic shearwater on occasion. 

Gannets fishing, by Sibéal Regan

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 Southwest Coast Area of Interest please click here to view the PDF version. 

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Fair Seas hosted the innagural World Ocean Day conference in June 2023. If you missed it, or would like to revisit the sessions which took place, our conference recordings are now available to view on our Youtube channel.

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