Marine protected areas in Irish waters need to be expanded urgently, report warns – The Irish Times

Ireland’s marine protected areas (MPAs) are set to increase by 18 times by the end of the decade to restore critical habitats, protect wildlife and address the climate crisis, according to a report commissioned by a coalition of leading environmental NGOs and networks.

The government must indicate a minimum of 30 per cent of Irish waters as MPAs by 2030, more than the current “totally inadequate” figure of 2 per cent, warns the Fair Seas Campaign (FSC) report released on Wednesday.

Recent estimates of Irish coastal habitats confirm that two-thirds are in adverse condition, with an alarming 90 per cent decline in numbers of iconic species such as guinea fowl and angel sharks noted.

MPAs are areas of seas and coasts that are legally protected from activities that damage habitats, wildlife, and natural processes. In 2019, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage initiated a process aimed at expanding Ireland’s MPA network over the next decade. The FSC commissioned their report to help speed up the process.

It is possible to protect 36 per cent of Ireland’s ocean territory, enabling the country to meet its European targets by 2030, it concludes. “This will help protect, conserve and restore vulnerable and important species and habitats, and also ensure that these habitats can function as huge natural carbon stores.”

It identifies 16 “areas of interest” for MPA designation in Irish waters including eight coastal regions stretching along the coast from Donegal to Louth. “These places are home to critically endangered sharks, globally important seabird colonies, and endangered animals that depend on these areas for breeding and feeding such as Atlantic siblings and blue whales,” it adds.

FSC spokesman Aoife O’Mahony said their report was about starting the conversation between stakeholders and decision makers. “It aims to significantly expand the process of building an effective network of MPAs in Irish waters that would enable Ireland to meet its commitments by 2030 with the best possible outcomes for nature, climate and people.”

She added: “We have used scientific research and available data to identify the potential areas most in need of protection. Our ambition is to see Ireland become a world leader in marine protection, giving our species, habitats and coastal communities the opportunity to thrive.”

Head of lobbying at BirdWatch Ireland (BWI) Oonagh Duggan said Ireland is still lagging behind when it comes to protecting and restoring nature on land and sea.

“We have been endowed with a wealth of marine life but waste it. Our vast coastline supports hundreds and thousands of breeding seabirds but species such as the Puffino and Kitiveko are now globally vulnerable. Irish Kitiwake populations have declined by 32 per cent between 2002 and 2018.

“While seabirds have some protection on land where they breed, there is no protection for them at sea where they feed. Ireland’s maritime territory is huge, it’s time to protect and restore large areas for these and other marine life, ”she added.

If properly planned, MPAs could lead to more stable and sustainable coastal fisheries, with additional benefits of increased tourism and public enjoyment of marine life, said marine ecology professor at Nord University in Norway Mark John Costello, who wrote the foreword to the report.

“While a majority of the public in Ireland supports the need for MPAs in principle, there will be objections to exactly where they are located, their boundaries and rules. Therefore discussions with local communities should begin as soon as possible, with political support to implement what is best for Ireland in the long run, “he said.

FSC includes the Irish Wildlife Trust; BWI, Sustainable Water Network, Friends of the Irish Environment, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Coomhola Salmon Trust, Irish Environmental Network and Coastwatch – its report is available at foirseas.ie

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