North-east Faroe-Shetland Channel MPA


Status: Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area (NCMPA)

Click to link to the interactive map


Located to the far north-east of Scotland, this MPA covers a large part of the north-eastern reaches of the Faroe-Shetland Channel in Scottish waters and is the largest designated MPA in Europe.


The continental slope here plays an important role in funnelling ocean currents that bring valuable food and nutrients to the region, which support a wide diversity of life. The channel is believed to be a corridor for migrating marine mammals, including the fin whale (‘razorback’), and sperm whale. At depths of 400-600m, the combination of seabed type and plentiful nutrients are ideal for deep-sea sponges. Below 800m, the muddy seabed is home to those species that can tolerate the cooler arctic-influenced waters, such as deep-sea worms. The MPA also includes several features of geological importance, including a series of deep-water mud

volcanoes known as the pilot whale diapirs.


More detailed site information can be found on the summary tab.

Map displaying MPA boundary and

associated protected feature data.

Visit the JNCC MPA Mapper to further

view and explore data for this MPA.


Legislation behind the designation: Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) transposed in to Scottish law by the Marine (Scotland) Act (2010)


Protected Features:

Protected Feature Feature Type Conservation Objectives
Deep-sea sponge aggregations     Low or limited mobility species  Conserve in favourable condition
Offshore deep-sea muds Habitat Conserve in favourable condition
Offshore subtidal sands and gravels Habitat Conserve in favourable condition
Continental slope Large-scale feature Conserve in favourable condition
A wide range of features representative of the West Shetland Margin Palaeo-depositional, Miller Slide and Pilot Whale Diapirs Key Geodiversity Areas Geological and geomorphological Conserve in favourable condition


The acquisition of new data may result in updates to our knowledge on feature presence and extent within this site. The most up to date information is reflected on the map at the top of the page and in JNCC's MPA mapper and the evidence underpinning the site available on the evidence tab.

Conservation Objectives:

The overarching conservation objectives for the designated features of all protected sites in UK offshore waters is to ensure they either remain in, or reach favourable condition. The ability of a designated feature to remain in, or reach favourable condition can be affected by its sensitivity to pressures. These pressures are associated with activities taking place within or in close proximity to a protected site. Specific information on the conservation objectives relating to this NCMPA is provided on the conservation advice tab.


Site Timeline

The diagram below is a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and designation of North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA. More detail can be found within the relevant documentation.

Relevant documentation

The documents referred to below and any other historical documents relating to North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA were produced during the selection and designation process and therefore may be out of date. This site information centre is the most up-to- date source of information for North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA, and will reflect any additional information gathered since these documents were produced.



Information about the NCMPA site selection process is available on the JNCC NCMPA pages.


This site summary was adapted from the NCMPA site summary and incorporates any information gathered since this document was produced. Please refer to this document for further details and information sources.


Site overview: Located to the far north-east of Scotland, this MPA covers a large part of the north-eastern reaches of the Faroe-Shetland Channel in Scottish waters and is the largest designated MPA in Europe. The habitats found here are strongly influenced by a significant range of environmental conditions, from the upper continental slope to the depths of the channel, and include a dynamic mixing zone where warmer Atlantic waters flow over cooler arctic waters. The continental slope plays an important role in funnelling ocean currents that bring valuable food and nutrients to the region, which in turn support a wide diversity of life. The channel is believed to be a corridor for migrating marine mammals, including fin whales (‘razorback’) and sperm whales.


At depths of 400-600m, the combination of seabed type and plentiful supply of nutrients are ideal for the establishment of deep-sea sponges. Up to 50 sponge species can be found within the sponge fields, many of which are different to those found in the surrounding areas. Deep-sea sponge aggregations are an OSPAR threatened or declining habitat  and a NERC Act habitat of priority importance. The sponges provide shelter for a range of small sea life such as pencil urchins (Cidaris cidaris) and an elevated perch for animals such as brittlestars that filter food from the passing water currents. Below 800m, the muddy seabed is home to those species that can tolerate the cooler arctic-influenced waters, such as deep-sea worms.


The MPA includes several different features of geological importance, including the pilot whale diapirs. The diapirs are a series of seabed sediment mounds which measure 2km to 3km across and rise to more than 70m above the surrounding seafloor. Research has shown the diapirs are just a tiny fraction of more extensive subsurface features, covering more than 2,000km2. The pilot whale diapirs are unusual in that they are the only known example of diapirs found in UK waters that breach the seabed surface and provide scientists with a rare opportunity to directly sample mid-Cenozoic age sediments at the seabed.

Further detail on the evidence for this NCMPA can be found on the evidence tab.


Site location: Coordinates for this NCMPA can be found in the designation order .

Site area: 23,682km2, approximately the same size as the south-west of England (23,88km2).

Site depth range: The site ranges from 330m below sea level at the edge of the Faroe-Shetland channel continental slope, extending down the slope into the deep and cooler arctic influenced waters 2420m below sea level.

Charting Progress 2 Biogeographic Region: Atlantic North-West Approaches, Rockall Trough and Faroe-Shetland Channel.

Site boundary description: The MPA boundary reflects the full extent of the records of deep-sea sponge aggregations on the continental slope in this part of the Faroe-Shetland Channel and the range of key geodiversity interests present. The north-east of the boundary tracks the extent of Scottish waters, and the west and north-western boundary follows the slide deposit feature representative of the Miller Slide key geodiversity area. The resulting shape also represents the diversity associated with the offshore subtidal sand and gravel and offshore deep-sea mud habitats in this part of the Faroe-Shetland Channel.



Last updated 02/2017

Site specific data
For a full overview of the data used to support site identification and information on confidence in feature presence and extent see the North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA data confidence assessment .

Some of the data for this NCMPA has been collected through JNCC-funded or collaborative surveys with other data obtained through other data sourcing. The data gathered provide direct evidence confirming the presence of the protected features within the site. Additional survey data will be added to the JNCC interactive MPA map  in due course.


Survey and data gathering

  • MV Franklin Survey (2006)
    This survey was commissioned by the Department for Trade and Industry (now Department for Energy and Climate Change; DECC)  as part of the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) survey programme. These surveys, in which JNCC collaborated, collected acoustic and underwater imagery data from areas off the north and west coasts of Scotland.
  • SV Kommandor Jack Survey (2002)
    This cruise formed part of the Atlantic Margin Environmental Survey (AMES). The cruise undertook a seabed environmental survey of the deep waters to the north of Shetland within the UK continental shelf. The cruise carried out seabed sampling and photography to investigate the seabed environment and fauna of the pilot whale diapirs and described and characterised ‘hard ground’ areas of the North-East Faroe Plateau.
  • RRS Charles Darwin Survey (C3-4; 2000)
    This cruise was led by the National Oceanography Centre and formed part of the AMES programme. Seabed samples were collected and photographic and video observations of the seabed and its fauna were also undertaken.
  • White Zone Environmental Survey (1999)
    This cruise formed part of the AMES programme to collect sidescan sonar, seabed samples and underwater imagery data. The survey also investigated areas of complex seabed topography, including the pilot whale diapirs. 
  • Atlantic Frontier Environmental Network Survey of the SEA4 Region (1996/1998)                                                                            The Atlantic Frontier Environmental Network (AFEN) undertook a regional assessment of the environment west of Shetland, collecting sidescan sonar, seabed samples and underwater imagery.
Data analysis reports
Further analysis of data gathered as part of the surveys listed above are available via the following reports:


References for further supporting scientific literature consulted during the identification of this site can be found in the data confidence assessment.


Additional relevant literature
Please be aware that although these sources contain information which is of interest in relation to this MPA, they do not necessarily represent the views of JNCC:

  • Bett, B.J., (2001) UK Atlantic Margin Environmental Survey: Introduction and overview of bathyal benthic ecology Continental Shelf Research 21: 917-956.
  • Holmes, R., Hobbs, P.R.N., Leslie, A.B., Wilkinson, I.P., Gregory, F.J., Riding, J. B., Hoult, R.J., Cooper, R.M. and Jones, S.M.. (2003) DTI SEA4: Geological evolution Pilot Whale Diapirs and stability of the seabed habitat. British Geological Survey Commercial Report CR/03/082.


Knowledge gaps
If you are aware of any additional data not referred to in the relevant documentation listed, please contact JNCC.



Last updated 02/2017

Conservation objectives

Conservation objectives set out the desired state for the protected feature(s) of an MPA. As there is no direct evidence of damage to any of the protected features within the North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA, the agreed policy approach states that such features should be allocated a conservation objective of ‘conserve in favourable condition’, noting that there is uncertainty in feature condition.


The conservation objectives for the protected features of the MPA are useful if you are:

  • planning measures to conserve the site and its protected features;
  • monitoring the condition of the protected features; or
  • developing, proposing or assessing an activity, plan or project that may affect the protected features of the site.


The Conservation Objectives for the protected features of the MPA are, subject to natural change conserve:

The deep-sea sponge aggregations, offshore deep-sea muds and offshore subtidal sands and gravels in favourable condition, such that:

  • their extent is stable or increasing; and
  • their structures and functions, their quality, and the composition of the characteristic biological communities are such as to ensure they are in a condition which is healthy and not deteriorating.


The geomorphological and geological protected features in favourable condition, such that:

  • their extent, component elements and integrity are maintained;
  • their structure and functioning are unimpaired; and
  • their surface remains sufficiently unobscured for the purposes of determining with the conditions in the points above.


The area of the continental slope in favourable condition such that:

  • the extent, distribution and structure of the feature is maintained;
  • the characteristic biological communities and their use of the feature, for activities such as feeding, courtship, spawning and as nursery grounds, are maintained and not deteriorating; and
  • the processes supporting the feature are maintained.


More information regarding the conservation objectives for the protected features of the North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA is available in the designation order. JNCC is working to provide more detailed advice on the relatively broad, high level conservation objectives for the features listed above. This supplementary advice will be posted here as and when it becomes available.


Advice on operations 

Section 127 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 states that JNCC may provide guidance regarding matters capable of damaging or otherwise affecting the protected features of a NCMPA.


JNCC has contributed to the development of an online Features, Activities, Sensitivities Tool (FeAST) intended to help public authorities, industry and regulators determine which activities are capable of affecting the protected features of a MPA. FeAST reflects our current understanding of the interactions between activities, pressures and features within NCMPAs. The tool highlights that activities can give rise to a range of pressures, to which the protected features of the MPA may be sensitive and may therefore be capable of affecting them. JNCC and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have also produced more specific fisheries management guidance on the impacts of different fishing gears on the protected features of Nature Conservation MPAs. The information contained within FeAST, the fisheries management guidance, and the activities and management tab are useful if you are:

  • carrying out any activity that may impact the protected features of the site and need to find out how to operate within the law;
  • an authority providing advice on specific proposals; and
  • an authority responsible for putting management measures in place.


JNCC also provides a list of activities occurring within the site and information on activity management on the activities and management tab. JNCC has provided this to aid the cumulative assessment of impacts of human activities within the site.


Our scientific understanding of the ecology of the protected features of the site and how activities can affect them may change over time. Similarly the activities taking place within the site may also change over time. JNCC’s conservation advice will be kept under review and will be periodically updated to reflect this. Further information on JNCC’s conservation advice work is available via our offshore MPA conservation advice webpage.



Last updated 02/2017

Activities occurring within this MPA (updated October 2016)



  • Demersal - The main fishing practices in the area involve line fishing, set netting and otter trawling.
  • There is no specific site-based fisheries management within this site.
  • The site falls outside the UKs 12 nautical mile limit and the site is to be exclusively managed under the EU common fisheries policy. Where required, Scottish government is aiming to have management measures in place by 2016. Marine Scotland will be the lead authority regarding implementation and compliance of those measures.
  • In support of the site designation process, a management options paper was prepared by JNCC. A management workshop involving national and international stakeholders will be held in March 2015. JNCC will provide a fisheries options paper for the North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA to support these discussions. Following engagement with stakeholders, Scottish government will draw up management proposals to submit to the European Commission.
  • In accordance with Article 18 of the revised common fisheries policy, requests for management will be developed jointly between the UK government and any member states with a direct management interest in the area. Once drafted, there is a requirement to consult the relevant advisory council prior to submission of any final recommendations to the European Commission.


Licensed activities:

  • Oil and gas – There is one well with activity currently suspended present in the south-east of the MPA. Part of the MPA overlaps with license blocks identified by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and may be subject to further oil and gas development in the future.
  • Existing licensed activities that take place or may take place in the future within North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA will continue to be managed in line with relevant legislation and application processes by the competent authorities. For further information, please see Marine Scotland’s MPA management handbook.  Information on JNCC's role in the provision of advice for licensed activities in the UK offshore area is available on the offshore industries advice webpages.


Other activities:

  • Cables – Telecommunications cables pass through the site. Cables are largely an unregulated activity in offshore waters depending upon the type of cable being laid (or maintained), where it is being laid between and whether the cable is part of a larger development (which may be regulated). Any cable not directly associated with an energy installation does not require a marine licence beyond 12 nautical miles. JNCC encourages early discussion from operators regarding any plans related to new or existing cables, and encourages the undertaking of non-statutory environmental impact assessments for new or existing cable projects to assess their effect on the protected features of the MPA.
  • Shipping – Under international law, ships have a rite of passage at sea including in areas designated as MPAs (unless management specifies the restriction of ship transiting as outlined through an international maritime organisation measure).  The pressures associated with shipping activity within North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA are not considered likely to impact the protected features of the site.


Management Plan: JNCC is undertaking a review of management plan requirements for offshore MPAs. Further detail will be provided at a later date.
Management Group: None at present.


Further information can be found in the North-East Faroe-Shetland Channel NCMPA management options paper.



Last updated 02/2017

MPA Monitoring

JNCC is currently leading on the development of a strategy for biodiversity monitoring across all UK waters, to include MPA monitoring. For MPAs, data and evidence collected from monitoring activities will aim to:

  • Enable assessment of condition of the features within sites;
  • Enable assessment of the degree to which management measures are effective in achieving the conservation objectives for the protected features;
  • Support the identification of priorities for future protection and/or management; and,
  • Enable government to fulfil its national and international assessment and reporting commitments in relation to MPAs and help identify where further action may be required.


Information on monitoring of this MPA will be provided when it becomes available.



Last updated 02/2017

MPA Assessment

Assessments of the condition of designated features in offshore MPAs are required to report against our legal obligations. Ideally these assessments should be based on observed data, and then measured against targets for predefined indicators. However, for MPAs in offshore waters we do not always have the appropriate information to be able to do so. This is particularly true for seabed habitats, which are the main type of feature designated for protection in offshore MPAs. 

To address these challenges, JNCC has been an active partner in the development of new approaches and tools for the assessment of habitats and species for a variety of national and international status reports. They include the second cycle of the conservation status assessment reports under the EU Habitats Directive, Charting Progress 2 and the OSPAR quality status report. JNCC continues to develop and pilot tools for the assessment of marine habitats and species in offshore waters to improve the quality and transparency of our offshore MPA assessments, and contribute to the monitoring of marine biodiversity in UK waters. These tools cover methods for producing interim assessments of site features and their responses to pressures, as well as developing more robust indicators for determining condition of the features.

Under the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, JNCC is required to report to ministers on the degree to which the conservation objectives of the protected features of NCMPAs have been achieved.  Every 6 years from 2012, the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 requires a report setting out how NCMPAs have performed against their conservation objectives, as well as the effectiveness of the network as a whole. The assessments of features within MPAs will also feed into six yearly reports on the state of the marine environment under the marine strategy framework directive, which aims to achieve good environmental status by 2020.


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