Marine Habitat Mapping

Habitat maps of the marine environment are required to provide a better understanding of the distribution and extent of marine habitats, both in particular protected areas and across the wider environment. Knowledge of the distribution and extent of marine habitats serves to establish sensible approaches to the conservation needs of each habitat and to facilitate better management of the marine environment through an understanding of how particular human activities are undertaken in relation to marine habitats.

Sonar Scan image © JNCC/Natural EnglandMapping methods

With increasing pressure being put on our coastal and offshore marine environment through industry and leisure activities, new methods and technologies have developed in recent years to allow rapid site evaluation and appraisal. Such technologies include multi-beam echo-sounding, side-scan sonar and acoustic ground discrimination systems. These remote sensing techniques combined with ground-truthing techniques such as sediment grabs, camera tows and dredging can be used to create detailed habitat maps.

Current and recent work

JNCC collates such habitat maps and makes them freely available to view and download from the EMODnet Seabed Habitats portal in the EUNIS classification. This website is a product of the JNCC-led international marine habitat mapping programme entitled 'Development of a framework for Mapping European Seabed Habitats', or MESH for short, which ran from 2004 to 2008. It was further developed through funding from the MESH Atlantic project, which ran from 2010 to 2013.
To fill gaps between small, detailed habitat maps, as described above, broad-scale predictive habitat maps have been produced based on broad physical categories. The UKSeaMap 2010 project updated a seabed habitat map for the entire UK continental shelf area using this method. UKSeaMap 2010 used the EUNIS habitat classification system to classify seabed habitats, with some new proposed habitat classes for the deep-sea area, which are currently being considered as part of JNCC's work on marine habitat classification for Britain & Ireland and as part of the EUNIS scheme.
Using a very similar approach to UKSeaMap 2010, the EUSeaMap project produced a seabed habitat map for over 2 million square kilometres of European seabed across the North, Celtic, Baltic and western Mediterranean seas. This project is funded by the European Commission's Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and will support the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.
As well as these large-scale projects, JNCC is responsible for collating a range of datasets for marine protected area designation and conservation status assessments. These include UK-wide maps of Habitats Directive Annex I features such as reefs and sandbanks and OSPAR-wide maps of OSPAR threatened and/or declining habitats.

Completed projects

A Review of Marine Nature Conservation (RMNC) was established in 1999, by Defra, to examine how effectively the UK system for protecting nature conservation in the marine environment is working and make proposals for improvements. The final report was submitted to Ministers in 2004. As a contribution to the RMNC a pilot scheme was undertaken in the Irish Sea to test the potential for an ecosystem approach to managing the marine environment at a regional sea scale. The Irish Sea Pilot project led by JNCC, ran between 2002 and 2004 and included the development of a broad-scale ecological map of seabed and water column features - 'marine landscape' maps. This approach to broad-scale mapping was extended in the UKSeaMap 2006 project to cover the rest of the UK continental shelf.


In 2001, JNCC produced a Marine Monitoring Handbook that holds procedural guidelines to many habitat mapping techniques and technologies. Further work was carried out by the MESH project to produce a set of Recommended Operating Guidelines, which describe marine mapping techniques in a habitat mapping context. The Marine Environmental Data and Information Network (MEDIN) has since improved some of these guidelines and also developed additional guidance; these can be found on the data guidelines section of the MEDIN website.


In addition, JNCC contributes to International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) work on marine habitat mapping through the ICES Working Group on Marine Habitat Mapping (WGMHM). JNCC’s David Connor was chair of the ICES WGMHM between 2003 and 2009. JNCC also provides advice to the UK conservation agencies (Natural Resources Wales (formally Countryside Council for Wales - CCW), Northern Ireland Environment Agency, SNH, Natural England), Government bodies and others on various mapping techniques and technologies.