Marine Habitats

In Ireland, the 1992 EC Habitats Directive (92/43/EC), as transposed by the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 (S.I. No. 477 of 2011), is currently the only legislative instrument providing protection to habitats in the marine environment.  For habitats, this protection regime is applicable within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  Under this legislation, a series of habitats are identified for which Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) must be created and within which these habitats must be maintained at favourable conservation status.  These habitats include:


Large shallow inlets and bays

Mudflats and sandflats not covered by sea water at high tide


Sandbanks that are slightly covered by seawater at all times

Submerged or partly submerged sea caves

Photo of Tralee Bay mudflat Photo of Dundalk Bay mudflat

Favourable conservations status is achieved by ensuring the habitats’ national range, area, structure and function and future prospects are not adversely affected.  Operations or activities proposed in or adjacent to SACs designated for these features must demonstrate they will not adversely affect the conservation status of these habitats.

Under the Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2018, Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) may be established to protect habitats or species.  Whilst some terrestrial and coastal NHAs may encompass adjacent marine areas, no NHAs have been established for marine habitats to date.

Under the OSPAR Convention to Protect the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic, Ireland committed to establishing marine protected areas to protect biodiversity (i.e., OSPAR MPAs).  No legislation is currently used in Ireland to legally underpin protected areas established to fulfil commitments under international conventions.  Therefore, since the creation of OSPAR MPAs would not afford any legal protection to the relevant areas on their own, Ireland (like other OSPAR contracting Parties) established a number of its SACs as OSPAR MPAs for marine habitats.

In recent years, significant levels of survey work are being undertaken to investigate the structure, distribution and extent of these Annex I habitats in Irish SACs.  From 2005-2009, a diving survey was undertaken to map the occurrence and distribution of some particularly sensitive biological communities (e.g., seagrass, maërl, sea pens, etc) that occur subtidally in SACs designated for the Annex I habitat Large shallow inlets and bays.  In 2009, a national benthic survey commenced of all SACs designated for the habitats mentioned above to investigate their structure and function.  This 3-4 year programme will lead to the development of site-specific conservation objectives and inform national monitoring and reporting efforts.

Photo of Zostera bed

Zostera Bed (Photo: MERC)

Photo of subtidal sediment community

Subtidal sediment community (Photo: MERC)

Download SACs designated for estuaries  PDF icon [32KB]

Download SACs designated for large shallow inlets and bays  PDF icon  [34KB]

Download SACs designated for mudflats and sandflats  PDF icon  [41KB]

Download SACs designated for reefs  PDF icon  [40KB]

Download SACs designated for sandbanks  PDF icon  [25KB]

Download SACs designated for sea caves  PDF icon  [30KB]

Download OSPAR MPAs  PDF icon  [33KB]