Site details

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5 stars - Fully protected as a national park or Natura 2000 site by national legislation
ATBI Reference Site

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Panorama from Banneg Island. Photo: R P Bolan

Synoptic description of site:

The Molene archipelago and the island of Ouessant, situated in the Iroise sea at the confluence of the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel, include 18 islands surrounded by large intertidal areas (972ha) and infralittoral zone (20 000ha)

Extensive description of site:

The Ushant-Molene archipelago, situated some 12 km W of the western end of Brittany, comprises two inhabited islands, 27 islets and hundreds of emerging rocks, delimiting a total area of some 130 km². The archipelago has been a Man and Biosphere UNESCO reserve since 1988. The intertidal area and the subtidal area up to 25 meters depth, constitute the buffer zone of the reserve. This process initiated fundamental studies to describe the main compartments of the island and marine ecosystems and initiated studies and proposals to manage these environments. The establishment of a Marine National Park is currently reaching final stages. The creation of the park itself will take place in 2003. Ushant-Molene archipelago constitutes the central zone of this park, the status of which will continue in perpetuity. Molene archipelago has, thanks to its very clear water, the largest laminarian field in Europe, including Laminaria hyperborea, L. digitata, L. saccharina, L. ochroleuca, Saccorhiza polyschides beds. Although the continent is nearby the islands (3 to 10 miles), there is a tidal front between the archipelago and the mainland, allowing isolation of the Iroise waters from the “continental” waters. Almost every marine coastal habitat that occurs in Brittany is to be found in the Ushant-Molene archipelago. The only exceptions are intertidal and sublittoral muddy substrata and all truly estuarine habitats that occur all around our peninsula. Zostera beds exhibit the longest Z.marina leaves recorded in Europe. Boulder fields occur on almost all islands, from very exposed shores to sheltered areas (harbours). These shores have been recognised as important recruitment and/or nursery grounds for many commercially fished species of the Iroise sea (fishes, crustaceans). Extensive maerl beds occur sublittorally in the southern part of the archipelago and this habitat has been designated as especially species rich and needing management and protection under the E.C. habitat directive (1992). Other habitats ranging from coarse gravels and boulders to fine sands and mud together with extensive rocky underwater-cliffs occur sublittorally.

Habitats present:
Littoral XX
Seagrass bedsX

Description of fauna and flora:

The archipelago constitutes a northern limit for several biota of the lusitanian fauna. Also it is a southern limit for several macroalgal species. Inventories of the major marine phyla have been compiled since the middle of last century and are still ongoing. Over 200 publications are dedicated to the biodiversity and natural environment of the Ushant-Molene archipelago. The proposed site can be considered as the highest representative pristine site of the French Atlantic/Channel coastal ecosystem because of the highest habitat diversity it holds (including intertidal and subtidal Zostera beds, maerl beds and intertidal boulder fields) and also thanks to the highest water quality of the area, leading to very high biodiversity for every compartment of the ecosystem. This site is already recognised by local, regional and national authorities (governmental, administrative and scientific), but also by the public, to be of high ecological interest.

Pristiness: High


Low antropogenic pressure (low hand fishing and demersal fishing pressure, on the intertidal zone and in the infralittoral (0-20meters) respectively, but laminarian are harvested. Low number of inhabitants on the islands. Island waters remain away from the terrestrial effluents, separated from the continent by strong tidal currents.

Human impact:

The archipelago is not under the threat of any industrial pollution, mining or dumping. No agricultural activity occurs on any of the islands. Total population of the archipelago is 1340 inhabitants, on 2 islands. The population has been decreasing since the seventies, with a 30% drop in the last 25 years. Fishing involves 60 professional fishermen in angling and pot fishing, but both activities are decreasing nowadays. Scallop dredging occurs in winter on a very restricted area (15 hectares) close to Ushant. Laminarian harvesting occurs in summer on subtidal rock grounds (50,000 tons/year).


A ferry leaves Brest and Le Conquet daily for the inhabited islands of the archipelago (Ushant- Molene), with a transit time between 45mn and 1h. An air shuttle is also provided from Brest airport daily on a weather permitting (strong winds) basis. From the inhabited isles, smaller vessels are available from the Natural Reserve wardens, that allow access to the other isles and islets of the archipelago. Ifremer and CNRS research vessels are available all year round, after an official (refereed) demand. Programming has to be done one year before the survey. Note that during winter storms work at sea may generally not be possible in most of the area. IUEM has a diving team and can provide diving equipment, security equipment and an inflatable vessel for SCUBA diving. There are two SCUBA diving clubs that regularly organize dives in the archipelago (one in Ushant and one in Le Conquet). Brest hospital is equipped with recompression chamber. The University of Western Brittany and CNRS are situated near Brest, 20 km from Le Conquet (some 2 hours from the islands). Laboratories provide all classical biodiversity equipment and a scientific library for macrobenthos, phytobenthos, phytoplankton and zooplankton. Hotels (Ushant & Molene) and youth hostels (Ushant) or a Natural Reserve house (Molene) are available all year round. Two islets have small houses where bivouacs can be organised.

Available database and website:

A comprehensive intertidal macrozoobenthos biodiversity database is available at the laboratory LEMAR of the European Institute for Marine Research (IUEM), Brest as hard copies or Excel files. For some species habitat, date and abundance are available upon request. The database will be available on the IUEM/LEMAR website at


Commitment and ongoing research:

The IUEM marine biology laboratories have funds for biodiversity research programmes in the Molene-Ushant archipelago. The forthcoming, nationally funded, Rebent programme (benthic habitats mapping and long term benthic survey) will include several stations in the area. The IUEM institute has funded (from 2000) a long-term biodiversity survey on the Zostera beds of the Molène Archipelago. Also two laboratories of IUEM are leading on-going macrofaunal and macroalgal biodiversity programmes. Regional authorities and Ministry of Environment fund specific programmes after refereed proposals (generally from one-year to five-year programmes).