Marine conventions, directives and legislation

International conventions


Convention on the Conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats (Bern Convention)

The Bern Convention aims to conserve wild flora and fauna and their natural habitats and to promote European co-operation in that field. The convention covers most of Europe and some of Africa. It emphasises endangered and vulnerable species, including migratory species. The Convention provides for the conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitats in general and for special protection of species listed in Appendix I (strictly protected plants), Appendix II (strictly protected animals) and Appendix III (protected animals). The requirements of the Bern Convention are mandatory on its contracting parties. Britain is a party to this convention and ratified its provisions in May 1982.

Further detail: Council of Europe - Bern Convention


Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention)

The CMS is an environmental treaty under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme. It provides a global platform for the conservation and sustainable use of migratory animals and their habitats. CMS brings together the States through which migratory animals pass, the Range States, and lays the legal foundation for internationally coordinated conservation measures throughout a migratory range.

Migratory species threatened with extinction are listed on Appendix I of the Convention. CMS Parties strive towards strictly protecting these animals, conserving or restoring the places where they live, mitigating obstacles to migration and controlling other factors that might endanger them. Besides establishing obligations for each State joining the Convention, CMS promotes concerted action among the Range States of many of these species. Migratory species that need or would significantly benefit from international co-operation are listed in Appendix II of the Convention. For this reason, the Convention encourages the Range States to conclude global or regional agreements.

Further detail: CMS 


Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora - CITES

The CITES Convention aims to protect endangered plant and animal species from illegal trade and over-exploitation. It was initiated at an IUCN General Assembly in 1963 and concluded at Washington in 1973 and came into force in 1975. It has been ratified by well over 100 countries worldwide, including the UK in 1976. Commercial trade in endangered species listed in Appendix I is forbidden. Controlled trade is allowed for species which, although not currently threatened with extinction, may become so unless restrictions are applied, listed in Appendix II. 
Where a Party to the Convention protects one of its native species from over-exploitation and seeks the assistance of other Parties in implementing these controls, it can list such species in Appendix III.

Further detail: CITES


Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic - OSPAR Convention

The OSPAR Convention aims to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. It came into force in 1998 and merged the 1974 Oslo Convention (Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft) and the 1978 Paris Convention (Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-Based Sources). The OSPAR Convention includes the following Annexes:

Annex I: Prevention and elimination of pollution from land-based sources;
Annex II: Prevention and elimination of pollution by dumping or incineration;
Annex III: Prevention and elimination of pollution from offshore sources;
Annex IV: Assessment of the quality of the marine environment; and
Annex V: Protection and conservation of the ecosystems and biological diversity of the maritime area.

Under Annex V of the convention, OSPAR developed a Strategy on the Protection and Conservation of the Ecosystems and Biological Diversity of the Maritime Area. The strategy states that the OSPAR Commission will assess which species and habitats need to be protected. Therefore, the OSPAR Commission developed a set of criteria for the selection of such species, habitats and ecological processes, called the Texel/Faial Criteria. An initial list of threatened and/or declining species and habitats was developed and ratified on 23 June 2003.

Further detail: OSPAR Commission


Red Data Lists

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red Data list catalogues and highlights those animals and plants at high risk of global extinction. Animals and plant species are categorized as 'Critically Endangered', 'Endangered', or 'Vulnerable' according to the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria. It also includes information on species that are 'Extinct' or 'Extinct in the Wild' or where there is not enough data to make a decision.

Further detail: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

European Directives and Regulations


Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora - the 'Habitats Directive'

This Directive aims to conserve biodiversity across the area of the European Union through a coherent network of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). The EU Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora came into force on 21 May 1992. Seven marine habitat types are listed in the Directive and nine of the species listed are marine or spend part of their life in the sea and have breeding populations in the United Kingdom. SACs together with 'Special Protection Areas' (SPAs) identified under the 'Birds Directive' create a network of sites described as 'Natura 2000'.

Further detail: Habitats Directive

United Kingdom Legislation and initiatives


The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010

The EU Habitats Directive (see above) was transposed into UK legislation by the "Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994" The Regulations came into force on 30 October 1994. They apply to land and to territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles from the coast.

The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995 (as amended) transposed the Habitats Directive in relation to Northern Ireland. For UK offshore waters (i.e. from 12 nautical miles from the coast out to 200nm or to the limit of the UK Continental Shelf Designated Area), the Habitats Directive was transposed into UK law by the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats & c.) Regulations 2007 (as amended).

All relevant amendments were consolidated under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 for England and Wales. In Scotland, the Habitats Directive is transposed through a combination of the Habitats Regulations 2010 and the 1994 Regulations.

Further detail: JNCC

Marine Acts

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 and Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 introduced a new system for the management and protection of the marine and coastal environment in England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. The aim of the new management and planning framework was to "help ensure clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse marine and coastal environments, managed to meet the long term needs of both nature and people". In particular, these 'Marine Acts' introduced a new series of marine protected areas in UK waters: the Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Scotland.


Features of Conservation Interest

Features of Conservation Interest (or Marine Conservation Zone Features) are marine features that are particularly threatened, rare, or declining species and habitats. They were chosen to focus the process used to identify Marine Conservation Zones in England and Wales and are listed in the Ecological Network Guidance (NE & JNCC, 2010).

Further detail: JNCC


Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended in 1985)

This Act provides the cornerstone to nature conservation in Great Britain. Major provisions relating to marine conservation are noted below.

Section 1 provides for the protection of wild birds.
Section 3 allows for the establishment of Areas of Special Protection for birds.
Section 9 allows for the protection of specifically listed wild animals, including marine species (listed in Schedule 5 of the Act).
Section 13 allows for the protection of wild plants, including marine species (listed in Schedule 8 of the Act).
Section 14 allows for the prevention of the introduction of alien species (listed in Schedule 9 of the Act).
Sections 36 and 37 allow for the establishment of marine nature reserves.
Schedules 5, 8 and 9 are reviewed every five years and revised.

The Act was recently amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

There are a number of amendments and revisions to the schedules specific to various regions, notably in Scotland and Northern Ireland (see below).

Further detail: JNCC

Northern Ireland Legislation and Policy Documents

The 'Wildlife and Countryside Act' and' Habitats Directive' were enacted into Northern Ireland legislation by the following instruments.

Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (NI) Order 1985 (as amended 1989)
Wildlife (NI) Order 1985
Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc) Regulations (NI) 1995
Coastal Zone Management in Northern Ireland (1996)
Planning Policy Statement 2 - Planning and Nature Conservation (1997)

Further detail: JNCC


UK Biodiversity Action Plan

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan is the UK's response to the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This Convention was signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in connection with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Its objectives are:

  • the conservation of biological diversity;
  • the sustainable use of its components, and
  • the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

Each contracting party must develop national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

A UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) was published in 1995 (UK Biodiversity Steering Group, 1995). It identified a list of Species of Conservation Concern, from which priority species were identified together with priority habitats within the UK. Species Action Plans, Species Statements, or Habitat Action Plans were prepared for priority species and habitats, and published in 1999 (see UK Biodiversity Group, 1999). A revised list of priority species and habitats was approved in June 2007. The 2007 UK BAP Priority Species and Habitats list contains 1149 species and 65 habitats.

The UK BAP was superseded in 2012 by the UK Post 2010 Biodiversity Framework. However, the list of species and habitat has been used to develop the statutory lists of priority species and habitat in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (see below).

Further detail: JNCC


'Priority' Habitats and Species in the UK

Lists of species and habitats of 'principal importance' have been draw up across the UK's devolved administrations. The lists are a requirement under the 'duty to conserve biodiversity' placed on public authorities under section 41 in England and section s42 in Wales of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities(NERC) Act 2006, Section 2(4)of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004, and Section 3(1) of the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.  

The resultant lists include:

Further detail: JNCC


Priority Marine Features (PMF) Scotland

Priority Marine Features (PMFs) are habitats and species that are considered to be marine nature conservation priorities in Scottish waters. Existing conservation schedules were assessed against criteria that considered whether a significant proportion of the population occurred in Scotland's seas, whether they were under threat or in decline and the functional role they play. The list will help deliver Marine Scotland's vision for marine nature conservation outlined in the Marine Nature Conservation Strategy. 

Further detail: SNH


MarLIN, 2015. Marine conventions, directives and legislation. Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Sub-programme [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. Available from: <>