South East Coast Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation

Size of the area: 7,124km²

The east 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. 

South East Coast Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation

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

There is a 130km long and 20km wide cod spawning ground running parallel to the south coast of Ireland, which is one of only two cod spawning grounds in Irish waters. Between 2005-2021 16% of fin whale sightings within Ireland’s EEZ occurred within this site, accounting for 14% of the overall total number of individuals. Fourteen percent of Risso’s dolphin sightings occurred within this site, accounting for 10% of the overall total number of individuals. Seabirds with colonies on the east coast of Ireland, as well as the coast of Wales and Cornwall in England depend on this area for vital foraging during chick-rearing. The majority of the newly arrived Mediterranean gull breeding occurs here at Lady’s Island Lake, which is also a hotspot for terns and black-headed gulls. 

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

You can download this as a printable poster here.

A poster titled 'Southeast coast' it shows the outlines of the various species that can be seen in this part of Ireland. Species on the poster include Fin whale, arctic tern, Risso's dolphin, Cod, Harbour porpoise and herring. These species were some that made up the selection of this areas as a potential Marine Protected Area designation as identified in research by Fair Seas.

Please feel free to download, print and share this infographic.

Commercially exploited species 

Several commercially exploited species use this area as spawning and/or nursing grounds, including herring, cod, haddock and whiting. With only one of two cod spawning grounds in Irish waters occurring here, it is vital that this area be given protection to conserve these fish. While there is currently no evidence of spawning site fidelity for sprat, high catches of juveniles are observed in groundfish surveys in this area. A large proportion of sprat landings are from in and around the Waterford Estuary. Protection of sprat is important, as it is a primary food source for many seabirds and cetaceans. 

Cod by Dr. Alex Mustard

Elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras)

Areas south of Hook Head and towards the UK border showed high elasmobranch species richness with nine species recorded in several areas. Spurdog, thornback ray and tope occur in high densities in this area. An average 11 individuals of tope were caught in groundfish survey hauls off the coast of Wexford, which is one of the highest densities in the country. 

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


The seabed in this Area of Interest is very diverse, consisting of roughly equal parts of sand and coarse sediment, with muddy patches and rocky substrate also present. Circalittoral rock is present from the coastline out to 4.5 nm. Large parts of these rocky areas occur in existing Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), especially Hook Head SAC and the Saltee Islands SAC. In the shallow parts of these areas, large kelp forests are known to exist, while deeper areas are characterised by sponge and sea squirt communities. 


This Area of Interest is a true hotspot of seabird activity, with 34 of the 38 total species identified within the explored data occurring in this region. The highest level of species richness occurs in this area, with 28 different species recorded at at least one point in time off Carnsore Point in Wexford, which is a major migration bottleneck. The Seatrack migration survey recorded approximately 43,000 birds over a four-year period (2010- 2103) with consistently high diversity each year (21-23 species present). Several key colonies exist within this Area of Interest. Internationally important colonies of roseate terns and Sandwich terns are located at Lady’s Island Lake. The Saltees Islands host large colonies of gannets, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes, and cormorants. A large gannet colony lies just across the border in Wales (Grassholm). 

Gannets by Janice Mulligan

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) 

High cetacean species diversity was recorded in this area generally at lower densities for most species compared to other sites. High densities of fin whales were recorded close to the coast, observed every month except March and April. High densities of Risso’s dolphins were recorded off Carnsore Point, particularly in the summer months. Moderate to high densities of harbour porpoise are distributed adjacent to the coast. Presence recorded year-round with greater sightings during January, July and November. Minke whales are also recorded here with high concentrations recorded off Helvick Head. Presence was observed year-round with the exception of February. Humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins are not as common in this area as in others. Killer whales were sighted on a small number of occasions and common dolphins are abundant throughout the site.

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 East Coast 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 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.

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