Last month, the government approved the General Scheme of a Bill to provide for the designation and effective management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). This general scheme will be referred to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and will undergo pre-legislative scrutiny by the Oireachtas starting early in 2023. Marine Protected Areas are areas of our seas and coasts legally protected from activities that damage the habitats, wildlife and natural processes that occur there. Ireland has committed to protecting 30% of its seas by 2030. The proposed new legislation will allow Ireland to designate new nationally based MPAs, helping it meet its national and international commitments, and giving nature at sea the best opportunity to not only survive, but thrive.
Last month also saw Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcolm Noonan TD announce the creation of two new Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) meaning an additional three million hectares of Ireland’s seas will be protected. Ireland currently has 2.1% MPA coverage, but with December’s announcement of the new SACs off the North West, and South West coasts of Ireland, that number will be increased to 8.3%.
In spite of these recent successes, Ireland currently lags far behind international best practice on marine protection. Despite making commitments under international and European law to protect 10% of our waters by 2020, the Irish government has currently protected only 2% of the seas around our island. A tiny fraction of these protected areas could be described as ‘strictly’ or ‘fully’ protected, delivering the full range of potential benefits to nature and society.
Fragmentation is a key issue in the management of our seas. Six national governments share nominal protection of 36 per cent of the Irish Sea. The Republic contributes just 1.4 per cent of it, and only a tiny fraction has any active management. This has prompted the creation of the Irish Sea Network (ISN), a partnership of NGOs drawn from all six nations. With the promise of yet more offshore turbines, the ISN wants the power of wind energy matched by well-researched and effective Marine Protected Areas.
The ISN brings together wildlife trusts in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man, plus Ireland’s Sustainable Water Network (Swan), an alliance of mostly freshwater NGOs. Backed by two leading environmental charities in the UK, the ISN has published a major online review of the Irish Sea.
In comparing the conservation of key species, Ireland’s long neglect of sea wildlife is clear. The recent inclusion of the basking shark in the Wildlife Act is an exception (see recent PILA article: Basking Sharks in Irish Waters given legal protection) like protection of porpoises and common seals. Among the six governments, Northern Ireland protects a whole series of sea species that the Republic’s Wildlife Act ignores, such as the leatherback turtle, sea bass, angel shark, common skate, tall sea pen and native oyster.
Ireland could argue that many key species are in protected habitats, such as the angel sharks of Tralee Bay or the Shannon’s bottlenose dolphins. However, the effectiveness of these EU Natura sites is challenged in a report from the Irish Wildlife Trust. It notes that the EU has taken Ireland to court over habitat neglect, notably in the decision of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to overlook 15 per cent of damage. Many Natura marine protection sites lack specific conservation objectives and allow harmful fisheries, aquaculture and dredging.
The new NGO alliance, the Irish Sea Network and its online review is a major resource for conservation. Closer to home, Fair Seas, the Irish NGO network has made its own research-based assessment of where MPAs should go, publishing a legal handbook. Ireland aims to protect 30 per cent of its waters by 2030.
The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage commissioned an advisory report in response to the huge volume of public responses to the proposed expansion of MPAs. Nearly all of the 2,311 submissions were strongly supportive and in many cases, ambitious. The progress of the Marine Protected Areas Bill into law will be eagerly awaited.