UK Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas Network is complete

The announcement last month by the Natural Environment Minister, Richard Benyon (Defra), that a 330km stretch of marine habitat between Studland and Portland in Dorset is to be designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) will complete the UK SAC network.

“This is a major step towards fulfilling our promise to create a a network of marine protected areas where marine life can thrive” commented the Minister at the launch.

This is the last inshore site to be added to the SAC network in Britain, an interactive map of all inshore and offshore sites is provided by Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). With the recent addition of three offshore sites (Pisces Reef Complex, Wight-Barfluer Reef and Crocker Carbonate Slabs) the UK network is now considered to be complete. The network now incorporates 102 SACs with marine components, covering a total of 5% of the UK sea area, 87 of which are inshore and 13 being offshore.

SACs are one of six important legislative measures that can be used presently to protect important marine habitats and species and fall under the EU Habitats Directive, the “cornerstone” of Europe’s conversation policy. The SAC and SPA (Special Protected Areas for birds with marine components) network will work in synergy with Britain’s own system of Marine Conservation Zones (previous blog on MCZs). All inshore and offshore sites throughout the EU have been selected through the presence of four bio-diverse habitat types; Sandbanks (that are consistently submerged), reefs, submarine structures made by leaking gases and submerged or partly submerged sea caves. The former two being the most significant criteria for UK waters. Natural England (inshore) and the JNCC (offshore) were the bodies chosen for the identification of SAC and SPA sites.

The Studland-Portland SAC is over half the size of the New Forest National Park and contains a number of reef areas in high structural (geological) and biological diversity. The large (<15m) protruding limestone ledges within Studland Bay support a vibrant community of sponges and sea fans. Whilst there are known dense Mussel beds (Mytilus edulis) occurring to the southeast of Portland Bill, research in the area by the University of Southampton and Natural England has only just begun to identify further potentially extensive beds within the proposed SAC area.

The now completed network is regulated and enforced under the new Marine Management Organisation (MMO). This incorporates the ten regionally specific Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, which have increased powers of conservation and protection since the introduction of the Marine Act in 2009.