Criteria for Conservation Areas

In 2003, OSPAR adopted criteria guiding the selection of areas for its ecologically coherent network of well-managed marine protected areas in the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR 2003-17). Since then, this work has been instrumental to the development of selection criteria for the selection of ecologically or biologically significant areas (EBSAs) as part of the global representative network of MPAs by the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD COP 9 Decision IX/20 Annex I, 2009), and of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) by the United Nations/ FAO (FAO 2009). Here is an overview of those criteria and a summary of how the Charlie-Gibbs area qualified for the process.



Marine Protected Area Network

(OSPAR 2003-17)

Convention on Biological Diversity: Criteria for ecologically or biologically significant areas (EBSA)

(COP 9 Decision IX/20 Annex I)

United Nations / FAO vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs)

(FAO 2009)

Qualifications of the proposed Charlie-Gibbs Marine Protected Area

(see OSPAR 08/7/9-E, BDC 09/5/8-E and BDC 09/11/1-E, Annex 9)



Uniqueness or rarity

Area contains either

  • unique (the only one of its kind), rare (occurs only in few locations) or endemic species, populations or communities, and/or

  • unique, rare or distinct, habitats or ecosystems; and/or

  • unique or unusual geomorphological or oceanographic features.


Uniqueness or rarity

An area or ecosystem that is unique or that contains rare species whose loss could not be compensated for by similar areas or ecosystems. These include:

  • habitats that contain endemic species;

  • habitats of rare, threatened or endangered species that occur only in discrete areas; or

  • nurseries or discrete feeding, breeding, or spawning areas.


The combination of features represented in the proposed Charlie-Gibbs MPA is probably unique, including

  • the ridge itself with its mountain chains and peaks providing a substantial hard substrate environment from abyssal to relatively shallow depths

  • a major ridge fracture zone which offsets the ridge by 5° to the east and opens a deep-sea biogeographic connection between the northwest and northeast Atlantic

  • a permanent frontal area which maintains a north-south biogeographic divide, contributing to a relatively high species diversity

  • an increased faunal biomass and probably elevated pelagic productivity near a permanent, meandering subpolar front, temporally and spatially variable between Lat 48°-53° N.

Ecological significance

The area has:

  • a high proportion of a habitat/biotope type or a biogeographic population of a species at any stage in its life cycle;

  • important feeding, breeding, moulting, wintering or resting areas;

  • important nursery, juvenile or spawning areas.


Special importance for life history stages of species

Areas that are required for a population to survive and thrive.


Functional significance of the habitat

Discrete areas or habitats that are necessary for the survival, function, spawning/reproduction or recovery of fish stocks, particular life-history stages (e.g. nursery grounds or rearing areas), or of rare, threatened or endangered marine species.


Due to its relatively high faunal biomass and probably elevated pelagic productivity near the subpolar front, the area is of particular importance as a

  • feeding area for marine mammals, such as blue, sei and sperm whales, and seabirds from breeding colonies as far away as the Azores

  • the ridge structure is important for deep-water sharks,

  • its topographically induced hydrographic conditions enhance deepwater teleost fish aggregations, and

  • it is an important reproduction area for roundnose grenadier, orange roughy and bathypelagic fish

  • the area provides otherwise scarce hard substrate and suitable current and feeding conditions to be an important stepping stone in the regional dispersal of coldwater corals.

Threatened or declining species and habitats/biotopes

The area is important for species, habitats/biotopes and ecological processes that appear to be under immediate threat or subject to rapid decline as identified by the ongoing OSPAR (Texel-Faial) selection process.

Important species and habitats/biotopes

The area is important for other species and habitats/biotopes as identified by the ongoing OSPAR (Texel-Faial) selection process.

Importance for threatened, endangered or declining species and/or habitats

Area contains habitat for the survival and recovery of endangered, threatened or declining species, or area with significant assemblages of such species.



Functional significance of the habitat

Uniqueness or rarity

The proposed MPA provides an important functional habitat to

  • demersal deepwater fish like orange roughy, grenadiers, redfish, alfonsinos and deepwater sharks. The decline of these taxa is documented, however the severity of decline remains unclear to date

  • marine mammals such as sperm, sei, fin and blue whales

  • migratory seabirds

  • living Lophelia pertusa and 40 other coral taxa have been observed at all depths and locations surveyed, although not in the extensive reef-type structures found off the coast of Norway

  • rich hexactinellid sponge communities or ‘gardens’ around the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone and the associated seamounts occur down to 3000 m depth.

Many of the features are listed as threatened and/or declining species/habitats by OSPAR (2008).


The area contains a high proportion of very sensitive or sensitive habitats/biotopes or species.

Vulnerability, fragility, sensitivity, or slow recovery

Areas that contain a relatively high proportion of sensitive habitats, biotopes or species that are functionally fragile (highly susceptible to degradation or depletion by human activity or by natural events) or with slow recovery.


An ecosystem that is highly susceptible to degradation by anthropogenic activities.


Life-history traits of component species that make recovery difficult

  • ecosystems that are characterized by populations or assemblages of species with one or more of the following characteristics: slow growth rates; late age of maturity;

  • low or unpredictable recruitment; or

  • long-lived.

Complex benthic habitats

Coral and sponge communities in deep water are extremely slow growing, with occurrence and growth being limited by substrate and food availabilty.

Deepwater sharks

44 species of deepwater sharks known from the area, among these three species listed as particularly threatened and/or declining by OSPAR. Generally, deepwater sharks are confined to the upper 2000 m of the ocean, all within fishing depth, and extremely sensitive to overfishing due to their life history traits. They require a high-energy environment such as around seamounts, the peaks of the ridge and near the subpolar front.

Seamount fish spawning aggregations

The commercially most relevant fish species from the area (roundnose grenadier, redfish, orange roughy, alfonsino, cardinal fish, ling, tusk) are typical K-strategists and form temporal aggregations which makes them highly vulnerable to overfishing.

Ecological significance

The area has:

  • a high natural biological productivity of the species or features being represented.


Biological productivity

Area containing species, populations, or communities with comparatively higher natural biological productivity.


Compared with other oceanic habitats such as the abyssal plains and their oligotrophic pelagic zones, it is likely that the productivity on the MAR is high, within the meandering subpolar front even similar to more northern waters.

High natural biological diversity

The area has a naturally high variety of species (in comparison to similar habitat/biotope features elsewhere) or includes a wide variety of habitats/biotopes (in comparison to similar habitat/biotope complexes elsewhere).

Biological diversity

Area contains comparatively higher diversity of ecosystems, habitats, communities, or species, or has higher genetic diversity.


Structural complexity

(An ecosystem that is characterized by complex physical structures created by significant concentrations of biotic and abiotic features). In these ecosystems, ecological processes are usually highly dependent on these structured systems. Further, such ecosystems often have high diversity, which depends on the structuring organisms.

The diversity of benthic and pelagic species recorded so far, and the range of habitats found within the proposed MPA are extensive. The inclusion of at least two faunal biogeographic provinces raises the diversity above similar or smaller areas comprising fewer habitats and e.g. only a single province. The diversity of corals is assumed to be higher than on the northern continental shelves.


The area has a high degree of naturalness, with species and habitats/biotope types still in a very natural state as a result of the lack of human-induced disturbance or degradation.


Area with a comparatively higher degree of naturalness as a result of the lack of or low level of human-induced disturbance or degradation.



The proposed Charlie-Gibbs MPA is sized so that most of the area can be expected to be unaffected by human activities. However the relatively small area of the ridge structures are within fishing depth. They are likely to have been explored if not commercially fished. This might involve damage of unknown scale to benthic biota and the deepwater fish community. Indications are the relatively frequent observations of lost fishing gear.


The area contains a number of habitat/biotope types, habitat/biotope complexes, species, ecological processes or other natural characteristics that are representative for the OSPAR maritime area as a whole or for its different biogeographic regions and sub-regions.


MPA network criterium (COP 9 Decision IX/20 Annex II)


The area is nominated for its importance as a section of the northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The area proposed is large enough to represent all functional habitats and communities of the northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge around the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone and adjacent abyssal plains. It includes a large number of identified seamounts with a summit depth shallower than 1500 m, and a permanent oceanic front.


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