Fair Seas is a new campaign aiming to protect, conserve and restore Ireland’s unique marine environment. A big part of achieving that lofty ambition is to ensure a well-managed and effective network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is established before the end of the decade. These areas will protect and help restore some of Ireland’s rarest, most threatened, and most vulnerable marine habitats, species and ecosystems. A well-balanced network of MPAs will also conserve places in our seas which are already in good or pristine condition, protecting them from damaging activities in the future.
The Irish Government has committed to designating 30% of Irish waters as MPAs by 2030. If we are successful (and that is a big if) – what then do we do with the other 70% of our seas? Aren’t these areas also important for marine wildlife and ecosystem functioning? The simple answer is yes – we need to look after, respect and use all of our marine environment sustainably, not just inside protected areas.
This is where the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) comes in – it is a European law designed to bring about ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES) across European seas, including Irish waters. The standard for GES is set using a complex suite of different targets and criteria, but overall, the MSFD’s goal is ‘maintaining biodiversity and providing diverse and dynamic oceans and seas which are clean, healthy and productive’.
Ireland is currently developing a ‘programme of measures’ which is fundamental to the success of the MSFD and achieving diverse, dynamic and healthy seas around our coast. The programme of measures are the marine conservation projects, initiatives and policy which are proposed, then carried out by the Government to bring about GES.
Unfortunately, Ireland failed to achieve GES for over half (6 out of 11) of the descriptors in the latest 2020 assessment. These include many of those critically important for safeguarding marine wildlife such as; ‘Biological diversity’, ‘Commercial fish & shellfish’, ‘Foodwebs’, ‘Seafloor integrity’, ‘Marine litter’ and ‘Energy including underwater noise’.
Despite the public consultation on the programme of measures closing in May, no new marine conservation projects, initiatives or policy proposals were put forward by the Government in the consultation document. Therefore, we are no closer yet to knowing what new measures will be undertaken by the Government to ensure GES targets are achieved before the next assessment cycle in 2026.
One thing we can be certain about, however, is that without an ambitious and effective programme of measures to address Ireland’s current gaps and failures in achieving GES, there is a real risk that the health of Ireland’s marine environment will decline even further in the coming years. Given the intertwined biodiversity and climate emergencies; there is no time to waste. Strong and effective action to protect and restore our seas is urgently needed. Marine Protected Areas are a big and important part of this, but if we don’t look after, respect and use all of our marine environment sustainably – then we can’t claim to be doing everything we can to protect nature at sea.
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