Galway Bay and Islands Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation

Size of the area: 3,470km²

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. 

Galway Bay and Islands Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation

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

This Area of Interest encompasses several highly important habitat types, including seagrass and maerl beds. The area is very important for several elasmobranch species. It has high densities of bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises year-round. This is one of the most important coastal AOIs for seabirds in terms of diversity and volume, with roughly 65,000 birds breeding here.

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

You can download this as a printable poster here.

Galway Bay and Islands Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation.


The Area of Interest covers several important inshore bays and estuaries, including ones that are already designated SACs or SPAs, e.g. Galway Bay, Aran Islands and Kilkieran Bay and Islands. Proper management of these sites would already contribute substantially to the protection of habitats within them, however SACs and SPAs only afford protection to a small subset of listed habitats and species. An extension of these sites into one larger MPA would allow movement between core areas of species and their habitats and – crucially –protect some species that might not currently be afforded protection within existing SACs. The main species of interest outside of the current SAC network is maerl in outer Galway Bay, kelp (Laminaria spp.) along the coastline and the seagrass (Zostera spp.) in Galway Bay. The seabed habitat types around the Aran Islands are highly varied, from shallow rock to gravel, fine sand and sandy mud to deep mud. According to GIS data from GBIF and OSPAR, the horse mussel (Modiolus modiolus) occurs in Galway Bay.  


This area incorporates the Cliffs of Moher, which annually hosts some of the largest aggregations of kittiwake, guillemot (breeding population of international importance), razorbill, puffin and fulmar in the country. It is the most visited natural tourist attraction in the country, with more than one million visitors annually, coming to experience the cliffs’ impressive height and trying to get a glimpse of the iconic puffins. Not far from shore are the Aran Islands, with important colonies for kittiwake, species of auk (guillemot, black guillemot and razorbill), as well as great black-backed gull and fulmar. Starting in Galway Bay and running along the Connemara coastline, several tern colonies are present along the way. 

Cliffs of Moher by Chris Hill

Elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras)

The area shows high elasmobranch species richness with 5-8 species recorded throughout the site. Analysis of elasmobranchs caught in groundfish surveys shows high densities of spurdog south and southwest of Inishmore, with more than 400 individuals caught in one survey haul in 2016. One study also states that there have also been recent reports of angel sharks in inner Galway Bay, and that the area is a refuge for flapper skate, both critically endangered species.  

Commercially exploited species

A large haddock spawning and nursery ground is located offshore from the Aran Islands on a large patch of deep circalittoral mud. This area also overlaps with Dublin Bay Prawns (Nephrops norvegicus) grounds, also known in this area as Galway Bay Prawns. The area between the Aran Islands and Galway is a herring nursery ground and there are several small herring spawning grounds in this area. Furthermore, Galway Bay is a whiting spawning and nursery ground. While there is currently no evidence of spawning site fidelity for sprat, high catches of juveniles are observed in groundfish surveys in this area. Protection of sprat is important, as it is a primary food source for many seabirds and cetaceans. 

Recently we visited Tommy Flaherty, a fisherman from Inis Mór. Tommy told us of the changes to the sea that he’s noticed in his many years of fishing. We spoke to Tommy about the prospect of a Marine Protected Area around the islands. Here’s what Tommy had to say. 

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) 

Bottlenose dolphins occur close to the coast and in between the islands, with the highest numbers recorded off Black Head. Harbour porpoises, humpback back whales and killer whales have all been observed in this area, although in lower numbers than in other parts of  Irish waters. Common dolphins however 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. 

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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