Skip to main content

Climate change and marine conservation

The 2015 MCCIP Report Card on marine biodiversity legislation showed that climate change is likely to have significant impacts on the UK’s marine protected areas and their features but identified a lack of guidance on how protected features should be managed to build resilience to climate change. 

Building on this work, MCCIP collaborated with some of the UK’s leading experts from academia and nature conservation agencies to produce a series of cards on how to manage protected species and habitats in the face of climate change. These were published in 2018. 

The seven cards focus on specific protected features (habitats or species) that are vulnerable to climate change. These features are also known to help support wider plant and animal communities, provide nursery grounds for fish and shellfish, and store carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

There are 48,226 hectares of saltmarsh along Welsh, English and Scottish coastlines, delivering many natural benefits, including coastal protection and carbon sequestration. Marshes support a high variety of species including invertebrates, birds and plants, providing vital refugia and feeding grounds.
Maerl beds are formed by calcareous red seaweeds. Maerl is potentially vulnerable to a wide range of climate change impacts, most notably the effects of pH changes on their skeletons.
Coral gardens are dense aggregations of one or more coral species. They predominantly include soft corals, but can include individual hard corals. Presently, it is still relatively unknown as to how climate change may impact coral gardens.
Sandeels are an important trophic link between plankton and predatory fish, seabirds and mammals, and support a large fishery in the North Sea. Climate change can have a direct impact on the reproductive timing of sandeels and the phenology of the plankton prey they depend on, increasing the likelihood of a mismatch between sandeel larvae and their prey.
Seagrasses are amongst the planet’s most effective natural ecosystems for capturing and storing carbon; but if degraded, they could release stored carbon into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. The beds also provide habitats for species of conservation importance such as stalked jellyfish and seahorses.
Horse mussels are large, long-lived, slow-growing bivalve molluscs, capable of forming dense aggregations. The habitats sustain diverse biotic communities, including red seaweeds, crabs, scallops, whelks, brittlestars and starfish. The beds may also be important for some commercial species including whiting, poor cod, queen scallops and common whelks.
Saline lagoons have been identified as one of the most vulnerable habitats to climate change impacts, with their physical, chemical and ecological characteristics all likely to be affected. They are complex and dynamic habitats that support a number of rare species of invertebrates and plants as well providing a highly important resource for large numbers of birds that use the habitat for feeding, nesting and roosting at high tide.