Razorbills foraging underwater, (c) RSPB (rspb-images.com)

In today's Why Policy Matters blog, Jeff Knott, RSPB Director of Policy & Advocacy, celebrates the good news for the NACES marine protected area, highlighting the importance of properly protecting what is under the waves and not just the birdlife that visit the region.

The ocean is vast. Covering more than 70% of the earth, the sheer scale of our marine environments can often boggle the mind for land based humans like us.

With such huge areas, protecting areas for wildlife need to be just as large, to make sure they are effective at delivering for our threatened ocean going species.

One of the largest it the snappily named North Atlantic Current and Evlanov Sea basin Marine Protected Area. The NACES MPA (to give it its slightly more succinct title) is a truly extraordinary site in the high seas of the North-East Atlantic. At nearly 600,000 km², its roughly the size of France. That’s the equivalent of 60,000 Minsmeres, 4,285 Abernethys, 75,000 Ynys Hirs, or 40,000 Rathlins.

It was designated in 2021 for its great significance to up to 5 million seabirds from 21 different species, hundreds of thousands of which come from the UK. These include 230,000 Puffins from Skomer Island and the Isle of May, 300,000 Kittiwakes from British colonies such as the aforementioned Rathlin and Fair Isle, 70,000 Manx Shearwaters from colonies such as the islands of Lundy, Rum and Copeland or 154,000 Fulmar from Orkney.

As well as its sheer size and importance, NACES was ground breaking in terms of how it was identified, as the site was the first high seas MPA to be identified solely based on tracking data. However, despite being one of the most important oceanic foraging grounds for seabirds in the world, up until last week NACES only afforded protection to its visiting seabirds. The seabed itself is also of extraordinary importance, with over 30 seamounts of great diversity, deep-sea sponges and coral gardens.

To extend the protection of this site to these wingless features, BirdLife launched a vast appeal across the region, supported by the RSPB, to which thousands of you responded.

Thanks to your support and this research, the OSPAR commission (the international body, responsible for protection the marine environment of the region) made the momentous decision to strengthen the protection and to extend the conservation objectives of this site beyond the waves. Protecting the ocean from top to bottom will benefit a huge range of species which use the area, including Blue and Fin whales, Leatherback and Loggerhead turtles, Basking sharks, European eels, and Atlantic Bluefin Tuna.

Protecting this site all the way to the seabed will also allow for incredibly important research to be carried out in an environment free of direct human pressures, helping us understand some of the more complex processes taking place in our sea, such as how carbon is stored in deep sea sediments.

Of course, designation still needs to be translated into meaningful protection, so we need to quickly get a management plan in place to make sure damaging activities within the site which could jeopardise its ambitious conservation objectives are stopped.

We, alongside our BirdLife partners, are ready to work with other stakeholders and OSPAR to achieve this, but for now lets take a moment to celebrate a landmark decision and a huge for our oceans.