The Canyons MPA


Status: Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ)Click to link to the interactive map


The Canyons MCZ is located in the far south-west corner of the UK continental shelf and is unique within the context of England’s largely shallow seas due to its depth, sea-bed topography and the coral reef feature it contains.


The site lies at the edge of the shelf, which drops away steeply to the oceanic abyssal plain at 2000m, giving rise to features such as deep-sea bed and cold-water coral reef. There are two large canyons within the site, which add to its topographic complexity: the Explorer Canyon to the north and the Dangaard Canyon below it. A patch of live deep-water coral reef (Lophelia pertusa) has been found on the northernmost wall of the Explorer Canyon, which is the only known example of this recorded in England’s seas. Reefs of the coral Lophelia pertusa typically supports a range of other species by providing a three-dimensional structure that can be used as shelter and an attachment surface.

More detailed site information can be found on the Summary tab below.                                       Map displaying the MPA boundary

View and download spatial data for this MPA

on the JNCC UK MPA interactive map.


Legislation behind the designation: Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009)


Protected Features

EUNIS Code: Protected Features Feature Type General Management Approach
(to achieve conservation objective)
A6: Deep-sea bed  Broad-Scale Habitat      

Recover to Favourable Condition

Cold-water coral reefs Feature of Conservation Importance

Recover to Favourable Condition


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 associated with activities taking place within or in close proximity to a protected site.

Specific information on the conservation objectives relating to this MCZ is provided in the Conservation Advice tab.

Site Timeline

The diagram below is a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and designation of The Canyons MCZ.  More detail can be found within the relevant documentation listed below and Annex 3 of the JNCC Advice on possible offshore Marine Conservation Zones considered for consultation in 2015.

The Canyons MCZ Timeline


Relevant documentation

The documents referred to below and any other historical documents relating to The Canyons 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 this MPA, and will reflect any additional information gathered since these documents were produced.

  • The Canyons MCZ Designation Order - the official description of the site designation under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. The Designation Order includes boundary coordinates, Conservation Objectives and a list of the designated features.
  • Site Summary Document - a summary of the key attributes of the site including boundaries, maps and descriptive text, produced as part of the site designation consultation package.

Further information about the Marine Conservation Zone site selection process and historic MCZ advice is available on the JNCC MCZ pages.

Site overview
The Canyons MCZ is located in the far south-west corner of the UK’s continental shelf, more than 330km from Land’s End, Cornwall. It encompasses the steep part of the shelf break where the seabed drops from a depth of 100m to the oceanic abyssal plain at 2000m. This makes the site unique within the context of England’s largely shallow seas. Within the site, there are two large canyons that indent the shelf break, adding to the topographic complexity of the seafloor: the Explorer Canyon to the north and the Dangaard Canyon to the south. On the northernmost wall of the Explorer Canyon is a patch of live deep-water coral reef  (Lophelia pertusa),  an OSPAR threatened and/or declining habitat. This is the only known example of living deep-water coral reef recorded within England’s seas making it unique in these waters. Other patches of deep-water coral reefs in the UK occur along the continental shelf break off Scotland and Ireland.

Reefs of the cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa typically support a range of other organisms. The coral provides a three dimensional structure and a variety of microhabitats that provide shelter and an attachment surface for other species. Cold-water corals can be long-lived but are extremely slow growing (at about 6mm a year) making protection important for their conservation. Another reef-forming cold-water coral, Madrepora oculata, is also present in the site.

The majority of the seabed in this site occurs at depths of greater than 200m. The variety of deep-sea bed communities present are indicative of the range of substrates found in and around the canyons, including bedrock, biogenic reef, coral rubble, coarse sediment, mud and sand. These biological communities include cold-water coral communities (Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata), feather star (Leptometra celtica) assemblages, burrowing anemone fields, squat lobster (Munida sp.) assemblages, barnacle assemblages and deep-sea sea pen (Kophobelemnon sp.) fields.

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

Site location:  Coordinates for this MCZ can be found in the Designation Order listed in the Relevant Documentation.

Site area:  661 km2

Site depth range:  Depth at the site ranges from 100m below sea level on the continental shelf to 2000m below sea level on the deep seabed (a range of 1900m).

Charting Progress 2 Biogeographic Region: Western Channel and Celtic Sea

Site boundary description
The boundaries were designed to encompass the steep part of the shelf break to cover areas of diverse seafloor habitat including sub-marine canyons and deep-sea coral habitats. The site is rectangular in shape, in line with Ecological Network Guidance (ENG) design principles . The northern and north-western boundary sections align with the UK Continental Shelf Limit. The western and eastern boundary sections were drawn as straight north-south lines. The southern boundary section was drawn to align with the old UK Continental Shelf Limit (pre 2014).

The information for this site summary was adapted from documents listed in the relevant documentation section and incorporates any further information gathered since these documents were produced. 

Site specific data
There is a range of data that underpin this MCZ. The full overview of the data used to support site identification along with information on confidence in feature presence and extent is available in the JNCC advice on offshore Marine Conservation Zones proposed for designation in 2013.

JNCC will be adding relevant survey data for this MPA to the JNCC Interactive MPA Map  in due course.

Some of the data for this MCZ has been collected through JNCC funded or collaborative survey and some through other means. Data from this survey provides direct evidence confirming the presence of the protected features within the site.

Survey and data gathering

  • National Oceanography Centre (NOC), Cefas and JNCC joint survey to The Canyons MCZ - 2015
    This collaborative survey funded by Defra undertook two dives in Explorer Canyon using a NOC remotely operated vehicle, targeting a known living cold-water coral reef and an area where reef is predicted to occur according to a high-resolution habitat distribution model (see Ross et al. 2015 in the Additional relevant literature). Multi-beam echosounder bathymetry data were collected covering the majority of the deepest and southerly sections of the site, where high-resolution bathymetric data have not previously been obtained. The cruise report is currently in preparation and will be made available in due course.
  • MESH South West Approaches Canyons Survey - 2007
    This collaborative survey (involving JNCC, the Marine Institute, the British Geological Survey and the University of Plymouth) collected high quality acoustic data and took nearly 1000 photos along 26 video transects to map the extent of deep-sea bed and cold-water coral reef habitats. The survey received Defra and European Regional Development Funding.

Data analysis reports
Analyses of data gathered as part of the surveys listed above, as well as other relevant data analysis products, are available via the following reports:

  • NOC, Cefas and JNCC joint survey to The Canyons MCZ
    Data from the 2015 survey are currently being analysed to identify areas of cold-water corals inside the Explorer Canyon in the north of the site. In addition to two planned dives over areas of known and predicted coral reef, NOC carried out a third dive in the east of the canyon and are kindly making these data available to inform our understanding of the cold-water coral reef feature. The analysis will also complete a high-resolution bathymetric image of the seafloor for the majority of the site. Reporting will be made available in due course.
  • EUSeaMap - 2012
    Supporting information on the presence and extent of the deep-sea bed in the deep circalittoral zone (below 200m depth) was provided from EUSeaMap (or the preceding UKSeaMap), a predictive seabed habitat mapping report for UK waters. The habitat map coverage for The Canyons MCZ can be seen on the EMODnet seabed habitat mapper.
  • Creation of a high resolution digital elevation model (DEM) of the British Isles continental shelf - 2011
    A Defra-commissioned modelling project undertaken by Ocean Wise Ltd./Astrium Geo-Information Services to create a bathymetry map of British seas, bringing together hydrographic survey data and chart data. The extent of deep sea-bed was defined by the 200m depth contour in this dataset.
  • MESH South West Approaches Canyons Survey - 2008
    Analysis of acoustic and seismic data to determine geomorphology and sedimentary processes and analysis of video and photographic data to determine the biological communities (biotopes) living on the sea bed. These outputs were used to create broad-scale habitat and biotope maps.

References for further supporting scientific literature consulted during the identification of this site can be found in the annexes of our MCZ advice.

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:

  • Duineveld, G., Lavaleye, M., Berghuis, E. M., and de Wilde P. (2001). Activity and composition of the benthic fauna in the Whittard Canyon and the adjacent continental slope (NE Atlantic). Oceanologica Acta 24:69-83
    This paper describes the findings of a survey investigating benthic communities and transport of organic matter in the canyons along the shelf break. The survey provided records of live cold-water coral reef within the northern extent of the northernmost canyon contained within the site as well as extensive areas of coral reef rubble elsewhere, indicating that there may have been more-extensive reefs in the past.
  • Ellis, J.R., Burt, G. and Rogers, S.I. (2007). Epifaunal sampling in the Celtic Sea. ICES ASC 2007. Theme Session A23
    This study undertook beam trawl groundfish surveys in 2000-2006 at the Canyons MCZ and elsewhere in the south-west offshore area. Along the edge of the continental shelf they found large numbers of the anemone Actinauge richardi, with the hermit crab Pagurus prideaux.
  • Howell, K.L., Davies, J.S and Narayanaswamy, B.E. (2010). Identifying deep-sea megafaunal epibenthic assemblages for use in habitat mapping and marine protected area network design. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 90:33-68
    Biological data were collected as part of this study in June 2007 along the flanks of the canyons and video data revealed the deep-sea coral communities.
  • Ross, L.K., Ross. R.E., Stewart, H.A. and Howell, K.L. (2015). The influence of data resolution on predicted distribution and estimates of extent of current protection of three ‘listed’ deep-sea habitats. PLoS One DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0140061
    This paper presents a high-resolution model of Lophelia pertusa reef distribution along the continental shelf of Ireland and the western waters of the United Kingdom. The model found a high likelihood of cold-water coral reef at the western edges of the Dangaard and Explorer Canyons inside The Canyons MCZ. The model considered seabed depth, slope, rugosity and curvature to determine habitat suitability for Lophelia pertusa reef, and was informed by 222 video transects recording the presence or absence of coral reef at sampling stations along the shelf break in UK and Irish waters.

Knowledge gaps
If you are aware of any additional information not referred to in any of the relevant documentation listed on the main page or the annexes of the MCZ advice documents, please contact JNCC.

MPA Conservation Advice

Conservation objectives
Conservation objectives set out the desired state for the protected features of an MPA.

The conservation objectives for the protected features of an 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 Objective for the protected features of this MCZ is:

Subject to natural change, the A6: Deep-sea bed and Cold-water coral reefs features are to remain in or be brought into favourable condition, such that for each of these features:

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

More information regarding the conservation objectives for the protected features of The Canyons MCZ is available in the site Designation Order, In addition to the conservation objectives above, General Management Approaches (GMAs) have been set by JNCC for each feature which provide a view as to whether a feature needs to be maintained in or be brought into favourable condition i.e. recover, based on our knowledge about its condition. For more information on the General Management Approach for MCZs see Defra’s MCZ Designation Explanatory Note.

The GMAs for the protected features of the MPA are:

Deep-sea bed: Recover to favourable condition
Cold-water coral reefs: Recover to favourable condition

More information on the GMA for the features in The Canyons MCZ is provided in JNCC’s Tranche 1 post-consultation advice to Defra  and a summary in the site factsheet.

Advice on operations 
Section 127 of the Marine & Coastal Access Act (2009) states that JNCC may provide advice and guidance regarding matters capable of damaging or otherwise affecting the protected features of an MCZ.

JNCC has published the following advice on activities which are capable of damaging or otherwise affecting protected features in MCZs:

JNCC provides a list of activities occurring within The Canyons MCZ and information on management within the activities and management tab. JNCC has provided this to aid the cumulative assessment of impacts of human activities within the site.  While every attempt has been made to ensure this information is accurate and kept up-to-date, the list is not to be considered exhaustive or definitive. The list does not, for example, include activities occurring off-site which may also be capable of affecting the protected features.

For the most up-to-date information about the biological communities present within the site and their spatial distribution, please see the evidence tab. Sensitivity information for the protected features within the site can be found in a Technical Report commissioned by Defra to support the MCZ designation process.

The information contained within the evidence tab, the activities and management tab, the above Technical Report and the advice listed above on activities which are capable of damaging or otherwise affecting the protected features in Tranche 1 MCZs 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
  • an authority responsible for putting management measures in place

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 on the offshore MPA conservation advice webpage.

Activities known to be currently occurring within this MPA
(Activities information correct as of April 2014)


There is evidence of mobile demersal, static and pelagic gear effort within The Canyons MCZ. Both UK and non-UK registered vessels are active in the area.

No fisheries management measures have yet been put in place to protect the designated features of this site but Defra and MMO are currently leading a work programme, with support from JNCC, to identify appropriate management measures. This site falls outside the UK’s 12 nautical mile limit and so fisheries management measures, if required, will be implemented through the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). A recommendation for management will be jointly developed by all EU member states with a direct interest in the site. The UK Government is aiming for this site to be appropriately managed by 2017.

MMO and Defra are leading discussions regarding the development of management for sites (SACs and MCZs) on a regional basis. This site is being considered alongside SACs and other MCZs in the English Channel and south-west UK and a fisheries stakeholder meeting will take in place in mid-May 2016 to discuss options for fisheries management in these sites. A Fisheries Options Paper to support these discussions will be prepared by JNCC. Following engagement with stakeholders, MMO and Defra will draw up management proposals which then will be submitted to a regional group of EU Member States with a direct management interest in the area for development as a joint proposal for submission to the European Commission.


Other activities:

  • Cables - There is one telecommunications cable in the south-east corner of the site which is currently out of service.

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 - There is low density international shipping in this area, including cargo vessels and tankers. Vessel anchorage is unlikely at this site given its offshore location.

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 The Canyons MCZ are not considered likely to impact the protected features of the site.

  • Ministry of Defence (MoD) activity - The site occupies a small part of a very large training area south-west of the UK.

The MoD has incorporated all designated MPAs into their Environmental Protection Guidelines (Maritime) and wider Marine Environmental and Sustainability Assessment Tool. These guidelines are used to manage MoD activity to minimise the associated risks to the environment.


Site Management

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: MPA Management National Steering Group

Further information on activities and feature sensitivity to these pressures can be found under the Conservation Advice tab.

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.

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 (CP2) and the OSPAR Quality Status Report (QSR). 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 & Coastal Access Act (2009), JNCC is required to report to Ministers on the degree to which the conservation objectives of the protected features of Nature Conservation MPAs (NCMPAs) have been achieved.  Every 6 years from 2012, the Marine Act 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 (MSFD), which aims to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020.


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