Updated Conservation Advice is now available for Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt NCMPA under the Conservation Advice tab below


Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA


Status: Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area (NCMPA)



Click to link to the interactive map


The Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA lies in offshore waters to the west of the Shetland Islands. The site is located on the Scottish side of the Faroe-Shetland Channel, a large rift basin that separates the Scottish and Faroese continental shelves.


Five different water masses meet in the Faroe-Shetland Channel, which interact with each other and the continental slope to generate ideal conditions for the boreal ‘ostur’ type of deep-sea sponge aggregations to settle. Offshore subtidal sands and gravels are also present, supporting a diversity of polychaete worms and a slow growing bivalve mollusc known as ocean quahog. The site contains an area of continental slope which could be important for maintaining the health and biodiversity of Scotland’s Seas.


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)


Protected features

Features Feature Type
Deep-sea sponge aggregations Habitat
Offshore subtidal sands and gravels Habitat
Ocean quahog aggregations Low or limited mobility species
Continental slope Large scale feature
Continental slope channels, iceberg plough marks, prograding wedges and slide deposits representative of the West Shetland Margin paleo-depositional system Key Geodiversity Area Geomorphological
Sand wave fields and sediment wave fields representative of the West Shetland Margin contourite deposits Key Geodiversity Area Geomorphological


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 on this page and in JNCC’s MPA mapper and the evidence underpinning this can be viewed in the evidence tab below.

Site Timeline

The diagram below is a summary of the key milestones involved in the selection and designation of the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA. More detail can be found within the relevant documentation listed below.

NCMPA SIC timeline v0.2

Relevant Documentation

The documents referred to below and any other historical documents relating to Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt were produced during the selection and designation process and therefore may be out of date.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. Information about the Nature Conservation MPA site selection process is available on the JNCC NCMPA pages.





Last updated: October 2017


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


Site overview
The Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA lies in offshore waters to the west of the Shetland Islands. The site is located on the Scottish side of the Faroe-Shetland Channel, a large rift basin that separates the Scottish and Faroese continental shelves. Five different water masses meet in the Faroe-Shetland Channel, including water with sub zero temperatures from the Arctic and relatively warmer waters from the North east Atlantic. These water masses have different temperatures and densities and so layers are created in the water column. The layers interact with the sloping sides of the channel to produce an area of mixing between 350 and 650 m depth, referred to as the intermediate water masses. Biodiversity in the MPA is thought to be linked to the intermediate water masses and the peak in benthic diversity and abundance occurs within the same depth range.


The higher current speeds created by the intermediate water masses, along with the presence of cobbles and boulders associated with iceberg ploughmarks, generate ideal conditions for the settlement of sponges. Deep-sea sponge aggregations are an OSPAR Threatened and/or Declining habitat and have been recorded in the channel between 400 and 600 m depth. The type of deep-sea sponge aggregation which occurs within the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA is boreal ‘ostur’. Boreal ‘ostur’ sponge aggregations typically have a high abundance of species of giant sponge (Demospongia), which local fishermen refer to as “Osterbunds” or “cheese-bottoms” due to their appearance. The sponges themselves often support a range of other species, for example by providing shelter for fish species and perches for filter feeders such as brittlestars. Within the UK, the boreal ‘ostur’ sponge aggregations only occur within the biogeographic region which includes the Faroe-Shetland Channel.


There are two distinct sedimentary communities within the site representative of offshore subtidal sands and gravels; one is found between 300 and 600 m which are characterised by a greater proportion of cobbles and boulders; and a second below 600 m, which are characterised by finer sands and muddy sands. The two communities are dominated by contrasting families of polychaete worm. The sedimentary habitats in the MPA also support ocean quahog (Arctica islandica). This species of bivalve mollusc is usually buried in sand and muddy sand, and can regularly live for over 100 years. Ocean quahog are an OSPAR Threatened and/or Declining species.


The MPA also includes an area of continental slope. It is thought that the Faroe-Shetland Channel continental slope is important for maintaining the health and biodiversity of Scotland’s Seas. The interaction between the various water masses and the channel slope create conditions that supply organic material to sponges and other benthic fauna, as well as aggregating prey. The wider Faroe-Shetland Channel may be an important pathway for migrating fin and sperm whales.


Five geodiversity features are included in the MPA which are representative of the West Shetland Margin palaeo-depositional system and the West Shetland Margin contourite deposits Key Geodiversity Areas. The sand and sediment wave fields in the West Shetland Margin contourite deposits were formed during interglacial periods and are unique to UK waters. Geodiversity features in the West Shetland Margin palaeo-depositional system were created in the last glacial period. During the last ice age, icebergs scoured the seabed leaving iceberg ploughmarks that remain on the sea floor. These iceberg ploughmark fields are associated with cobbles and boulders, which are ideal settlement points for deep-sea sponge aggregations.


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

Site area: 5,278 km2; roughly the same in area as the county of Sutherland at 5,252 km2.

Site depth range: The shallowest parts of the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA are 400 m below sea level, however depths within the site reach 800 m below sea level in the Faroe-Shetland Channel.

Charting Progress 2 Biogeographic Region: The MPA spans the boundary between the Scottish Continental Shelf region and the Atlantic North-West Approaches, Rockall Trough and Faroe/Shetland Channel region.


Site boundary description
The 400 m and 800 m depth bands were used to draw the site boundary. This depth band encompasses the diversity of hydrographic conditions present in the Faroe-Shetland Channel. The boundary also covers the depth band (400 m to 700 m) at which the peak in benthic diversity and abundance occurs. All records of ocean quahog in this part of the Faroe-Shetland Channel are included in the site boundary, along with types of offshore subtidal sand and gravel habitats that are considered suitable ocean quahog habitat. The MPA covers all the records of deep-sea sponge aggregations in this area of the Faroe-Shetland Channel and includes the depth band where deep sea sponge aggregations are known to occur in the wider region (400-600m).




Last updated: October 2017


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 Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA Data Confidence Assessment. JNCC will be adding relevant survey data for this MPA to the Interactive MPA Mapper in due course. Some of the data for this MPA has been collected through JNCC funded or collaborative surveys and some through other means. Data from these surveys provide direct evidence confirming the presence of the protected features within the site.


Survey and data gathering

  • Wyville Thomson Ridge and Faroe-Shetland Channel proposed MPA Survey (2012) - This survey was a collaboration between JNCC and Marine Scotland Science. Video and camera imagery were collected to support evidence on the presence and extent of deep-sea sponge aggregations and offshore subtidal sands and gravels within the MPA.
  • Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Survey (2006) - The SEA surveys were commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry (now Department for Energy and Climate Change, DECC). These surveys, in which JNCC collaborated, collected multibeam and underwater imagery data from areas off the north and west coasts of Scotland.
  • Surveys of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) 4 Region (1996-2000) - A series of dedicated environmental surveys were carried out in the SEA4 region, which includes the Faroe-Shetland Channel, between 1996 and 2000. The earlier surveys were undertaken on behalf of AFEN (Atlantic Frontier Environmental Network, a consortium of oil companies, UK government environmental advisers (JNCC, Fisheries Research Services (now Marine Scotland Science, MSS)) and the UK Department for Trade and Industry (now DECC). Further surveys were carried out as part of DECC’s SEA process. The surveys collected physical samples of the seafloor along with acoustic data.
  • Oil and gas operators in the Northern North Sea area have provided data that supports the presence of ocean quahog within the MPA boundary.


Data analysis reports

  • EUSeaMap (2016) - Provides supporting information on the presence and extent of offshore subtidal sands and gravels from a predictive seabed habitat map of European waters.
  • Application of the OSPAR definition of deep-sea sponge aggregations (2014) - JNCC commissioned a contract to apply the OSPAR definition of deep-sea sponge aggregations to verify suspected records of the habitat in UK waters. Survey data from this site was included in that contract and supported with high confidence presence of the ‘boreal-ostur’ type of deep-sea sponge aggregations.
  • Analysis of video and still images to characterise habitats and macrobenthos (2014) - Marine EcoSol were contracted by JNCC to analyse data from the 2012 survey of the Wyville-Thomson Ridge and Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt. Deep-sea sponge aggregations were identified on several stills and video tows, supporting the presence of this feature in the MPA.
  • Report of the identification of Key Geodiversity Areas in Scotland's seas (2013) - This report helped support information on the presence and extent of important geological/geomphological areas in Scotland’s seas, which includes The West Shetland Margin Paleo-Depositional System and West Shetland Margin Contourite Deposits Key Geodiversity Areas of relevance to this NCMPA.
  • Seafloor biotope analysis of the deep waters of the SEA4 region (2012) - Data from this site were included in a contract to identify, map and describe the seabed biotopes of the SEA4 region of Scottish seas. The analysis provides evidence of the presence and extent of different types of offshore subtidal sand and gravel habitats within the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA.
  • Photographic analysis report of the SEA/SAC Survey (2007) - Howell et al. (2007) analysed the images from the 2006 Strategic Environmental Assessment Survey. The results support the presence of offshore subtidal sand and gravels, deep-sea sponge aggregations, continental slope channels and iceberg ploughmarks within the MPA.


Additional relevant literature

References for further supporting scientific literature consulted during the identification of this site can be found in the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA Data Confidence Assessment. Please be aware that although these sources contain information in relation to this MPA, they do not necessarily represent the views of JNCC.


Knowledge gaps
If you are aware of any additional information not referred to in any of the Relevant Documentation, please contact JNCC.


Conservation Advice

Last updated: April 2018


Updated formal conservation advice is now available for this MPA.  Further information on the approach used to develop this advice is available on the Conservation Advice webpage along with a Glossary of Terms used in JNCC conservation advice and a short video explaining how to use the conservation advice packages. 


You must refer to this advice if you:

  • undertake an impact assessment for a plan or project that could impact the site;
  • provide information for such an assessment;
  •  respond to specific measures to further the conservation objectives for the site; and 
  • consider the need to put new or additional management measures in place.


You may also find it useful to refer to this advice if you:

  • Carry out any other activity that could impact the site.


We will engage with stakeholders to identify any lessons which JNCC can learn from customers who have used the advice, with a view to continuing to ensure it is fit-for-purpose.

The following table provides an overview of the components of the conservation advice, and provides hyperlinks to each of the products for this MPA. These elements together form JNCC’s formal conservation advice for this site and should be read in conjunction with each other. This advice reflects the most up-to-date evidence held by JNCC (correct as of April 2018). A zipped folder enabling these documents to be downloaded together is available at the bottom of this page.


Document Overview
Background Information Explains the purpose of the advice and when it must be referred to.
Conservation Objectives


Supplementary Advice on the Conservation Objectives (SACO)

The Conservation Objectives set out the broad ecological aims for the site. JNCC provide supplementary advice in the SACO which is essential reading to support interpretation of these conservation objectives. It provides further detail and site-specific information for each feature within the site including which of the attributes need to be conserved and which ones recovered.


You can use these documents to assess the impacts of your planned activity on the important attributes of the site.
Conservation Advice Statements

These statements provide a summary of the Supplementary Advice on the Conservation Objectives (SACO)


  • Site condition presents our up to date understanding of the condition of features within the site;
  • Conservation benefits which the site can provide, these help you understand what is important about the site and why it needs protecting; and
  • Conservation measures which JNCC consider are needed to support achievement of the conservation objectives. These provide clarity around measures needed to support restoration or maintenance of the feature(s) within the site.
Advice on Operations

Provides information on the activities capable of affecting site integrity and therefore achievement of the site’s conservation objectives.


This is a starting point for determining potential management requirements. It does not take into account the intensity, frequency or cumulative impacts from activities taking place. It is simply to advise you of the possible adverse impacts that your activity can have on a MPA’s features.


Use the advice on operations to determine those pressures your activity causes that could harm the habitat and/or species features of the site.




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Activities and Management


Last updated: October 2017


Management status: Progressing towards being well managed


Progress is ongoing with the recommendation of fisheries management proposals to the European Commission. Directed site condition monitoring work will be required in order to conclude with confidence as to the degree to which the site is moving towards or achieving its conservation objectives.


This site forms part of the UK’s contribution to the OSPAR commission’s network of MPAs and the Emerald network established under the Bern Convention. As the UK is a member of the OSPAR commission, JNCC are committed to ensuring that the OSPAR MPA network is 'well-managed’ by 2020.

JNCC consider ‘well-managed’ to mean the timely progress of an MPA around the ‘MPA management cycle’. This involves:

  1. The documentation of appropriate management information - conservation objectives, advice on activities capable of affecting the protected features of a site, and spatial information on the presence and extent of the protected features of a site.
  2. The implementation of management measures - management actions considered necessary to achieve the conservation objectives of a site.
  3. Site condition monitoring programmes – collecting the information necessary to determine progress towards a site’s conservation objectives.
  4. Assessment of progress towards conservation objectives – using available information to infer whether or not a site is moving towards or has achieved its conservation objectives.


The sub-sections that follow provide an account of the progress of Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt NCMPA around each of these four stages in the MPA management cycle:


The documentation of appropriate management information

  • The conservation objectives and advice on activities capable of affecting the conservation status of the protected feature of this site are available under the conservation advice tab.
  • JNCC are in the process of improving our MPA conservation advice packages. Further information is available on our conservation advice pages.
  • Spatial information on the presence and extent of the protected feature of this MPA is available via JNCC’s MPA mapper.
  • JNCC are in the process of developing downloadable MPA data packages where appropriate permissions to share datasets are in place.


The implementation of management measures
This section details progress towards the implementation of management measures for activities considered capable of affecting the conservation status of the protected features of the site. The protected features of the site are considered to be sensitive to pressures associated with fishing and ‘licensable’ activities.


  • There is evidence of mobile demersal and static effort within the MPA. UK and non-UK registered vessels have been active in the area.
  • The site falls outside the UK’s 12 nautical mile limit and is to be exclusively managed under the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). In accordance with Article 18 of the revised CFP, requests for management will be developed jointly between the UK Government and any Member States with a direct management interest in the area affected.
  • Marine Scotland are the lead authority regarding the implementation of, and compliance with, any measures to managing fishing activity. Further information on progress is available via Marine Scotland's webpages

Licensable activities

  • Surface and subsurface infrastructure associated with a number of oil and gas developments overlap within this MPA. A large proportion of the MPA overlaps with license blocks identified by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (formally the Department of Energy and Climate Change) and so may be subject to further oil and gas development in the future.
  • Licensable activities such as oil and gas exploration and production taking place or that may take place within this MPA are managed in accordance with the clauses set out under section 127 of The Marine & Coastal Access Act (2009). Under this clause, JNCC have a statutory responsibility to advise the regulator on developments that are capable of affecting (other than insignificantly) the protected features of the MPA and that may hinder the achievement of the sites conservation objectives. JNCC consider the existing marine licensing process is sufficient to ensure the management of licensable activities taking place, or that could take place in the future, on the protected features of this MPA.
  • For further information, see Marine Scotland’s draft MPA Management Handbook and Marine Scotland’s Guidance for Marine Licence Applicants.
  • Further information on JNCCs role in the provision of advice for licensed activities in the UK offshore area is available on JNCC's offshore industries advice webpage.

Telecommunications cables

  • Two telecommunications cables cross through the MPA.
  • 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 license 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.


Site condition monitoring
Site condition monitoring surveys are yet to take place within this MPA. Further information will be made available under the Monitoring tab in due course.


Progression towards conservation objectives
No long-term condition monitoring data are available to determine whether the MPA is moving towards or has reached its conservation objectives. Further information will be provided under the Assessment tab as it becomes available.




Last updated: October 2017


JNCC is currently leading on the development of a strategy for biodiversity monitoring across all UK waters, to include MPA monitoring. Data and evidence collected from MPA 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: October 2017


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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