East Coast ‘Area of Interest’ for Marine Protected Area Designation 

Size of the area: 4,346km²

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.

East Coast Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation

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

The colony is located on the small island of Rockabill. Cod often hits the headlines for its declining stocks among fisheries. One of only two cod spawning grounds in Irish waters occurs along our east coast covering 65% of this ‘Area of Interest’, it is essential that protected measures and management plans are put in place here to protect the birthplace of this vulnerable species. Nephrops (Dublin Bay Prawns) make their homes in the muddy bottom that can be found across this area. This section of Ireland’s east coast boasts 37% of harbour porpoise sightings. While Kilcoole beach in Wicklow is home to Ireland’s most important little tern colony. 

Seabirds

With the exception of only three species, Cory’s shearwater, little auk and Wislon’s storm-petrel, all other species of seabird that are found in Ireland have been recorded within the ‘East Coast Area of Interest’. 

All five red-listed species of seabirds are accounted for including; Balearic shearwater, Leach’s storm-petrel, puffin, kittiwake and razorbill. All recorded tern species are observed here. 

As mentioned above, Rockabill Island off the coast of Skerries county Dublin is home to the most important breeding roseate tern colony in all of Europe. In June Fair Seas had the privilege of visiting the island to learn about the incredible conservation work being undertaken by Birdwatch Ireland. We even brought a few government officials out with us. Seeing over 3,500 seabirds nesting on this tiny island was an experience that would not easily be forgotten. We hope the trip inspired everyone who came out to want to protect these waters that are a critical area for Europe’s seabirds. 

Lambay Island provides a nesting site for guillemot and shag colonies of international importance, while also accommodating large colonies of kittiwake, razorbill, cormorant, puffin, fulmar and several gull species, making it one of the most diverse and abundant seabird hotspots across Ireland’s entire Maritime Area. 

Cetaceans 

Bottlenose dolphins can be seen year-round in this area, however in lower numbers than in other parts of the country with the exception of high numbers seen off the Frazer Bank and Broad Lough. 

Harbour porpoises are ubiquitous throughout the site, with higher densities recorded north of Howth and south of the Frazer Bank. Sightings occur year-round with peak counts in August.

In fact, a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) the ‘Rockabill to Dalkey Island SAC’ was designated with harbour porpoise as a qualifying feature in 2013. In a 2008 survey, calves accounted for 8% of the porpoises surveyed in North County Dublin. 

Minke whales are seen along the east coast with the occasional appearance of killer whales and Risso’s dolphins over the years. 

Habitats

Horse mussel (Modiolus modiolus) and Sabellaria spinulosa (a type of polychaete worm that builds the tube it lives in out of sand and shell pieces) are found in this area of the Irish Sea, especially off the coasts of Dublin and Wicklow. They are important because they form reefs that then become home to other organisms that can live among them. These reefs also help to stabilise the seabed and even clean the seawater around them. An extension to the Wicklow Reef Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is therefore recommended to be included in the wider MPA. 

The northern part of this Area of Interest also features rare seabed habitats.‘Seapens with burrowing megafauna’ can be found here and is listed as a threatened and/or declining habitat by OSPAR. The area to the east of Dundalk Bay is predominantly dense mud/silt in which Dublin Bay Prawns (Nephrops norvegicus) build their burrows. 

The sediment that forms a mudbelt in the western Irish sea doesn’t move around much and isn’t affected by wave action like in other parts of our seas. This lack of movement makes this area a perfect place for the prawns to make their burrows. Fishing methods that involve bottom trawling in this area would cause the sediment to be moved around. This inevitably could make the sediment in the area more coarse and in the end no longer suitable for the prawn burrows. 

Dublin Pay Prawn pokes its head and large claws out of its burrow on the muddy sea floor.
Dublin Bay Prawn by Paul Naylor

There is scope for this area to be expanded out to the maritime border with the UK in order to link this Area of Interest with the UK’s ‘Queenie Corner’ marine conservation zone, which is designated for seapen and burrowing megafauna communities and subtidal mud. 

Historical data shows that the east coast was once rich in native oyster (Ostrea edulis) reefs, but sadly today there are none of these left due to overexploitation. We believe that the native oyster reefs should be restored within this area as they provide an essential ecosystem service as a hard-habitat for other animals, they fix nutrients through their feeding and have high water-filtration rates that help clean the seawater around them. These native oysters also stabilise seabed sediments when they form reefs, potentially representing a nature-based solution to climate change and coastal flooding. 

Commercially exploited species

Several commercial fish species utilise this area as nursery and/or spawning habitat, including some that have poor stock statuses, like cod, haddock, whiting and herring. The area is also important for Dublin Bay Prawns, which overlap strongly with locations of seapens as we discussed above.

Elasmobranchs 

Several threatened species of shark and ray occur in large numbers on the east coast. Spurdog and thornback ray numbers are very high to the east of Howth. Over the past 20 years of groundfish surveys, 2000% more spurdogs were found in one part of this Area of Interest compared to areas directly adjacent. This huge difference in numbers of spurdog is not due to a lack of survey effort in one area over another but due to the overall high numbers of sharks and rays that depend on this specific area. 

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. 

 

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