OSPAR's MPA Network Toolkit

OSPAR is the mechanism by which fifteen governments of the western coasts and river catchment areas of Europe, together with the European Community, cooperate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. Under its North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy (NEA Strategy) the work of the OSPAR Commission is guided by the ecosystem approach to an integrated management of human activities in the marine environment. One of the tools applied is the establishment of an ecologically coherent network of well-managed marine protected areas. As this is a country-led, knowledge-based approach, the process requires much political and scientific consultation.


Ministers' Decision

A major milestone was reached during the OSPAR Ministerial Meeting in 2003. It was agreed that the OSPAR Recommendation 2003/3, in conjunction with the Biodiversity Strategy, and the Helsinki Convention (HELCOM) would be used to create a common work plan. This work plan would form the basis for all subsequent efforts to establish an "ecologically coherent network of well-managed marine protected areas by 2010" - the 'OSPAR Network'.

It was agreed that OSPAR MPAs individually and collectively aim to

  • "protect, conserve and restore species, habitats and ecological processes which are adversely affected as a result of human activities";
  • "prevent degradation of and damage to species, habitats and ecological processes following the precautionary principle"; and,
  • "protect and conserve areas that best represent the range of species, habitats and ecological processes in the OSPAR Area" (OSPAR 2003-17). 

The OSPAR Network should take into account the linkages between marine ecosystems, and the dependence of some species and habitats on processes that occur outside the MPA concerned. The MPA network should particularly take account of the needs of highly mobile species, such as certain birds, mammals and fish. This is in order to safeguard the different critical locations of particular life-cycle stages, such as breeding, nursery and feeding areas.

The Ministerial Meeting 2010 recognised that the goal of an ecologically coherent network of well-managed MPAs was not achieved by 2010. New deadlines were set for establishment of the network in 2012, and for achieving the well-managed state by 2016.

The OSPAR Recommendation 2003/3 on a Network of Marine Protected Areas was amended accordingly by OSPAR Recommendation 2010/2.


OSPAR Intersessional Correspondence Group on Marine Protected Areas (ICG-MPA)

With a view to facilitating the process to establish the OSPAR Network of Marine Protected Areas in the North-East Atlantic and to foster the required scientific and technical collaboration amongst OSPAR Contracting Parties (CPs), an Intersessional Correspondence Group (ICG-MPA) with representatives from all CPs has been created already in 1999. With Germany being the lead country within OSPAR for MPAs, this group is being chaired and convened by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) since then. Through annual meetings and intersessional correspondence work, the ICG-MPA is playing the key role in the development of technical guidance, methodologies and assessments with regards to the identification and management of OSPAR MPAs, as well as the ecological coherence of the MPA network. Furthermore, the ICG-MPA has been decisive in evaluating and elaborating further proposals for OSPAR MPAs in the High Seas of the North-East Atlantic.

Acting as the secretariat of the ICG-MPA, the BfN with the support of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) has been preparing annual reports on the status of the OSPAR Network of MPAs starting with 2006. The reports have been published by the OSPAR Commission and are available on the OSPAR website.


Formal MPA Nomination

Within areas of national jurisdiction (i.e. the 200 nautical mile zones) the OSPAR Contracting Parties select and designate sites as marine protected areas. These are then nominated to the OSPAR Commission for inclusion in the OSPAR Network. This way the existing marine Natura 2000 areas of EU Member States can become an integral part of the OSPAR Network without further obligations. Currently, the Natura 2000 sites constitute the overwhelming majority of OSPAR MPA sites.

Beyond national jurisdiction, proposals for sites to be protected as OSPAR MPAs can also be made by observers, i.e. non-governmental organisations, such as WWF or BirdLife, but requires support of at least one contracting party. The formal procedure involves the approval of a proposal by several technical fora within OSPAR, based also on advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES).


Technical Guidance

Several guidance documents have been adopted, representing the agreed minimum consensus on the process of submission and identification, as well as selection criteria to be used for OSPAR MPAs. In the first phase of MPA identification, a set of ecological criteria should be applied. These include:

  • a focus on the area’s importance for threatened or declining species and habitats/biotopes;
  • its functional ecological significance, naturalness, its sensitivity to disturbance; or
  • it being a representative example within the OSPAR maritime area.

To meet the aims of the OSPAR MPA Network, representativity of natural characteristics is an important first order aspect in site selection. An agreed biogeographic regionalisation serves to check the biogeographic spread of the MPAs in the OSPAR database. Several tools enable the assessment of the comprehensiveness of the national and regional MPA networks. These include a background document on assessment of ecological coherence, and a scorecard to assist with MPA network design.



The nomination of sites to the OSPAR Network does not require that management measures are already in place. However, they do either have to be in place by 2016 for sites nominated before 2010, or at the latest 5 years after nomination to OSPAR. All OSPAR MPAs have to be accompanied by a management plan, in accordance with the management guidelines. The plan would document how the conservation aims for which the area has been selected shall be achieved. In the case of the Natura 2000 sites, these can be reported and managed as OSPAR MPAs without further reporting obligations.

A scorecard approach helps Contracting Parties and OSPAR to assess the effectiveness of MPA management in view of achieving the aims of the OSPAR MPA Network. A preliminary overview of the management regimes in MPAs throughout the OSPAR area highlights that, in many cases, management is still in preparation, and no detailed information on management effectiveness is available. Management actions have been required to be reported annually since 2010.


State of the OSPAR MPA Network 2014

The state of the OSPAR MPA Network is being reviewed and assessed on an annual basis since 2006 by the OSPAR Intersessional Correspondence Group on Marine Protected Areas (ICG-MPA). The 2014 status report, prepared by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), Germany, concludes that the current inventory of 413 MPAs in all of the OSPAR regions does not provide for an ecologically coherent network of sites, and that some biogeographic subregions are not being represented at all. The currently nominated sites by EU member states reflect exclusively their Natura 2000 sites with a few exceptionsA strong imbalance exists between coastal (23.59 %) and offshore (3.06 %) waters. It also found that the maximum MPA coverage is in the Barents Sea, and that the highest relative coverage is 13.83 % of boreal shelf waters, i.e. the North Sea. Overall, about 5.82 % of the OSPAR maritime area is covered by MPAs. Currently, 6.02 % of the area beyond the limits of national EEZs, i.e. the High Seas, the Area and the ECS areas, are covered by OSPAR MPAs. 59 % of the 788,377 km2 are contributed by the 7 MPAs outside the national 200 nautical mile zones, (see Factsheet). In most of the sites however no management measures are in place yet, A summary is provided by OSPAR in their Factsheet on the OSPAR MPA Network 2014



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