Moray Firth to Humber Estuary IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

12,888 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Common bottlenose dolphin – Tursiops truncatus

Criterion B (1)

Grey seal – Halichoerus grypus

Criterion C (1)

Harbour seal – Phoca vitulina

Criterion C (1)

Minke whale – Balaenoptera acutorostrata

Criterion C (2)



This IMMA encompasses the coastal waters of Scotland and England between Helmsdale and the Humber estuary. The area is characterised by an indented coastline that includes large embayments, intertidal mudflats, salt marshes and estuaries as well as the open waters off the coast. The area hosts a resident population of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) which are regularly encountered in the nearshore waters, where they feed and breed. The Southern Trench in the Moray Firth also serves as a key foraging area for common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) during the summer and autumn months. The IMMA also supports a diversity of other marine mammal species, some present year-round, like harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), and others with a seasonal presence, like white-beaked dolphins (Lagenhorynchus albirostris) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Around 7% of the world’s grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) breed at sites in the IMMA (~14,000 individuals). It also encompasses haul out and breeding sites, and to a lesser extent foraging areas, for around 1,350 harbour seals (Phoca vitulina).

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion B: Distribution and Abundance

Sub-criterion B1: Small and Resident Populations

The east coast of the UK contains a large proportion of the habitat and area consistently occupied by a discrete and resident population of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) for which photo-ID data have been collected since 1989 (Arso Civil et al 2019; Cheney et al., 2013; Robinson et al., 2017). Based on data from 2015 to 2019 the weighted mean population size is 224 (95% CI 214-234) individuals, and data show the population is increasing (Cheney et al., 2018; Arso Civil et al., 2019, 2021). The Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation (SAC) was originally designated in the 1990s to protect this population, but subsequent monitoring efforts demonstrate this spatial delineation no longer captures a high proportion of habitat that the population utilises year-round (Wilson et al., 2004; Culloch & Robinson, 2008; Cheney et al., 2013; Gutiérrez-Muñoz et al., 2021). Photo-ID data demonstrate that this population now extends along the coastal waters between the Moray Firth in Scotland and the Humber in England (Arso Civil et al., 2019; Sea Watch Foundation, 2021; Citizen Fins project, unpublished data). From 2010 there has been a marked increase in records of bottlenose dolphins in eastern England, first in the Northumbrian area and then since 2016, further south in Yorkshire, with occasional sightings even off Norfolk (Evans & Bertulli, 2021).

Passive acoustic monitoring shows inter-annual and seasonal variation in the presence of bottlenose dolphins in parts of the range such as in the Moray Firth SAC, with a peak in presence during summer months but with animals frequently present during most winter months (Cheney et al., 2018). The area is used for breeding and foraging, with calves regularly sighted across the distributional range (Arso Civil et al., 2017; Robinson et al., 2017; Cheney et al., 2019; Citizen Fins project, unpublished data). These coastal waters include a number of river estuaries which host year-round or seasonal migrations of prey species which make the mouths of the estuaries high usage areas by bottlenose dolphins for foraging (e.g. Hastie et al., 2004; Bailey et al., 2010).

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C1: Reproductive Areas

Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) breed in various sites along the coast in this area including colonies on the Isle of May (~ 1,900 pups) within the Isle of May SAC, Fast Castle (~4,500 pup) and the Farne Islands ( ~2800 pups) within the Berwickshire and North Northumberland Coast SAC, and Donna Nook (~ 2,200 pups) within the Humber Estuary SAC (Russell et al. 2022). In total around ~14,000 pups are born in this IMMA area annually, which is over 20% and 7% of the UK and world’s grey seal pup production, respectively (SCOS, 2022). This IMMA also encompasses haul out sites for around 1,350 harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) (Russell et al. 2022; ~3% UK’s total estimated harbour seal population), and includes breeding and to a lesser extent, foraging areas for this species.

Sub-criterion C2: Feeding Areas

The highly productive waters of the Moray Firth attract above-average densities of common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) relative to adjacent waters (Tetley et al., 2008; Paxton et al., 2014; Robinson et al., 2023), with sightings of minke whales occurring primarily inshore in shelf waters less than 200 m deep. A total of 56,263 kms of boat survey effort conducted between 2001 and 2022 resulted in 964 sightings of confirmed age-class common minke whales (471 juveniles and 493 adults; Robinson et al., 2023). Effort-corrected encounter rates of minke whales were higher in offshore waters compared to more coastal waters, with a peak in sightings from July to August, and a progressive inshore movement of animals across the summer and autumn (Robinson and Tetley, 2009). The area provides rich feeding grounds for minke whales during the summer and autumn months (Robinson et al., 2007, 2009; Robinson & Tetley, 2009). Adult whales target larger prey than their juvenile counterparts, with juveniles almost exclusively targeting year 0-1 sandeels, whilst adults demonstrate greater dietary plasticity, with seasonal prey-switching between sandeels (year 0-3), herring and sprat (Robinson et al., 2023). The Southern Trench lies along the southern coastline of the outer Moray Firth, and has been designated as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) for the protection of minke whales (NatureScot, 2020).

The importance of this area as a feeding ground for minke whales is further supported by sighting distribution and predicted density maps show the waters off Whitby in NE England are important for a number of baleen whale species including minke whales and humpback whales, in late summer and autumn, coinciding with the spawning herring migration in the area (Evans and Bertulli, 2020; Evans and Waggitt 2020; Waggitt et al., 2020).

Supporting Information

Arso Civil, M., Cheney, B., Quick, N.J., Thompson, P.M. and Hammond, P.S., 2017. A new approach to estimate fecundity rate from inter‐birth intervals. Ecosphere, 8(4), p.e01796.

Arso Civil, M., Quick, N.J., Cheney, B., Pirotta, E., Thompson, P.M. and Hammond, P.S., 2019. Changing distribution of the east coast of Scotland bottlenose dolphin population and the challenges of area‐based management. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 29, pp.178-196.

Arso Civil, M., Quick, N.J., Mews, S., Hague, E., Cheney, B.J., Thompson, P.M. and Hammond, P.S., 2021. Improving understanding of bottlenose dolphin movements along the east coast of Scotland. Final Report. Report number SMRUC-VAT-2020-10 provided to European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC), March 2021 (unpublished). Available at—final-report-2021.pdf

Bailey, H. & Thompson, P. 2010 Effect of oceanographic features on the fine-scale foraging movements of bottlenose dolphins. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 418: 223-233.

Brereton, T., Kitching, M., Davies, R., McKnie, F. and Walker, R., 2016. Photoidentification Analysis of White-beaked Dolphins off South west and North east England 2007-2014. Report for Natural England, number EPR03082.

Cheney, B., Thompson, P.M., Ingram, S.N., Hammond, P.S., Stevick, P.T., Durban, J.W., Culloch, R.M., Elwen, S.H., Mandleberg, L., Janik, V.M.m Quick, N.J., Islas-Villanueva, V., Robinson, K.P., Costa, M., Eisfeld, S.M., Walters, A., Phillips, C., Weir, C.R., Evans, P.G.H., Anderwald, P., Reid, R.J., Reid, J.B. and Wilson, B. 2013. Integrating multiple data sources to assess the distribution and abundance of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in Scottish waters. Mammal Review, 43(1), pp.71-88.

Cheney, B., Graham, IM., Barton, TR., Hammond, PS., and Thompson PM. 2018. Site Conditioning Monitoring of bottlenose dolphins within the Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation: 2014-2016. Scottish Natural Heritage Research Report No. 1021

Cheney, B.J., Thompson, P.M. & Cordes, L.S. 2019. Increasing trends in fecundity and calf survival of bottlenose dolphins in a marine protected area. Scientific Reports 9:1767

Citizen Fins project, Sea Mammal Research Unit

Culloch, R.M. and Robinson, K.P. 2008. Bottlenose dolphins using coastal regions adjacent to a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in north-east Scotland. Journal of the Marine Biological Association UK, 88, 1237-1243.

Evans, P.G.H. and Bertulli, C.G. (2020) Cetaceans in the Yorkshire region and adjacent sea areas. Sea Watch Foundation, Anglesey.

Evans, P.G.H. and Bertulli, C.G. (2021) Bottlenose dolphins in North-east England. Sea Watch Foundation, Anglesey (report to Shell UK).

Evans, P.G.H. and Waggitt, J.J. (2020) Cetaceans. Pp. 134-184. In: Crawley, D., Coomber, F., Kubasiewicz, L., Harrower, C., Evans, P., Waggitt, J., Smith, B., and Mathews, F. (Editors) Atlas of the Mammals of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Published for The Mammal Society by Pelagic Publishing, Exeter. 205pp.

Gutiérrez-Muñoz P, Walters AEM, Dolman SJ and Pierce GJ (2021). Patterns and Trends in Cetacean Occurrence Revealed by Shorewatch, a Land-Based Citizen Science Program in Scotland (United Kingdom). Front. Mar. Sci. 8:642386.

Hastie, G.D., Wilson, B, Wilson, L.J., Parsons, K.M. and Thompson, P.M. 2004. Functional mechanisms underlying cetacean distribution patterns: hotspots for bottlenose dolphins are linked to foraging. Marine Biology, 144, 397-403.

IJsseldijk, L.L., Brownlow, A., Davison, N.J., Deaville, R., Haelters, J., Keijl, G., Siebert, U. and ten Doeschate, M.T., 2018. Spatio-temporal trends in white-beaked dolphin strandings along the North Sea coast from 1991-2017. Lutra, 61(1), pp.153-164.

NatureScot 2020. Southern Trench Marine Protected Area Site Summary

Paxton, C.G., Scott-Hayward, L.A.S. and Rexstad, E.A., 2014. Statistical approaches to aid the identification of Marine Protected Areas for minke whale, Risso’s dolphin, white-beaked dolphin and basking shark. Scottish Natural Heritage, Policy and Advice Directorate. Available at:

Robinson, K.P. and Tetley, M.J. 2009. Behavioural observations of foraging minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in the outer Moray Firth, north-east Scotland. Journal of the Marine Biological Association UK, 87, 85-86.

Robinson, K.P., Baumgartner, N., Eisfeld, S.M., Clark, N.M., Culloch, R.M., Haskins, G.N., Zapponi, L., Whaley, A.R., Weare, J.S. and Tetley, M.J. 2007. The summer distribution and occurrence of cetaceans in the coastal waters of the outer southern Moray Firth in northeast Scotland (UK). Lutra, 50, 19-30.

Robinson, K.P., Sim, T.M.C., Culloch, R.M., Bean, T.S., Cordoba Aguilar, I., Eisfeld, S.M., Filan, M., Haskins, G.N., Williams, G. and Pierce, G.J. 2017. Female reproductive success and calf survival in a North Sea coastal bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) population. PLoS ONE 12: e0185000.

Robinson, K.P., MacDougall, D.A.I., Bamford, C.C.G., Brown, W.J., Dolan, C.J., Hall, R., Haskins, G.N., Russell, G., Sidiropoulos, T., Sim, T.M.C., Spinou, E., Stroud, E., Williams, G., and Culloch, R.M. (2023) Ecological habitat partitioning and feeding specialisations of coastal minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) using a recently designated MPA in northeast Scotland. PLOS ONE 18(7): e0246617.

Russell, D.J.F. et al. (2022) Trends in seal abundance and grey seal pup production.Special Committee on Seals Briefing Paper. SCOS-BP 22/02

SCOS. (2022) Scientific Advice on Matters Related to the Management of Seal Populations: 2022. Natural Environment Research Council Special Committee on Seals, UK.

Sea Watch Foundation, 2021. National Whale and Dolphin Watch 2021 report. Available at

Tetley, M.J., Mitchelson-Jacob, E.G. and Robinson, K.P. 2008. The summer distribution of coastal minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in the southern Moray Firth, NE Scotland in relation to co-occurring meso-scale oceanographic features. Remote Sensing of Environment. Special Issue on Earth Observation for Biodiversity and Ecology, 112(8), 3449-3454.

Waggitt, J.J., Evans, P.G.H., Andrade, J., Banks, A.N, Boisseau, O., Bolton, M., Bradbury, G., et al. (2020) Distribution maps of cetacean and seabird populations in the North-East Atlantic. Journal of Applied Ecology, 57: 253-269. doi:

Wilson, B., Reid, R.J., Grellier, K., Thompson, P.M. and Hammond, P.S. 2004. Considering the temporal when managing the spatial: a population range expansion impacts protected areas-based management for bottlenose dolphins. Animal Conservation forum, 7(4) 331-338.


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