The stirring seas that wrap around our small island are a wild place where ocean currents converge, great whales wander, and seabirds sail in from the four winds. As wild as our untamable seas may seem, human activity continues to leave its mark on our ocean ecosystems which play a vital role in food production, maintaining biodiversity, and capturing carbon to keep our climate stable.
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The report states that Ireland’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) must increase 18-fold by the end of the decade in order to restore critical habitats and address the climate emergency.
For years we have seen governments around the world kick the can down the road when it comes to acting on climate change and biodiversity loss. Many grand commitments are made at international conventions, yet, carbon dioxide emissions are still increasing and the loss of wild places and wildlife continues. Revitalising Our Seas sets out recommendations to begin the process of restoring biodiversity, safeguarding our largest carbon stores and breathing new life into our coastal communities.
The report shows how it would be possible to protect 36% of Ireland’s ocean enabling the country to meet its European targets of 30% MPA coverage by 2030. Sixteen areas of interest have been identified that make up a network of MPAs covering 175,504 km2 of Ireland’s maritime area. That would protect an area of the ocean over twice the size of the island of Ireland.
The ocean that surrounds Ireland is home to an amazing array of life. From the largest animal ever to have lived on our planet, the blue whale, to the second biggest fish, the basking shark, all the way down to sprat (a small fish) and plankton (tiny shrimp-like creatures) that form the foundation of our ocean food chain.
Areas along our coast that are now popular sea swimming spots and kayaking trails are also home to huge underwater forests of kelp (a large brown seaweed) and meadows of seagrass. These habitats that occur all around our coast are very important carbon stores and spawning and nursery grounds for many different types of small sharks and fish. Our coastal waters attract many larger visitors in the summer months, such as basking sharks and humpback whales which feed on small shoaling fish and plankton.
Ireland’s breathtaking cliffs attract millions of tourists every year but did you know they also attract enormous flocks of seabirds that breed and raise their young on these iconic natural monuments? In fact, Ireland is home to some of Europe’s most important seabird colonies including the rare roseate tern colony on Rockabill Island off the East coast.
The south and west edges of Ireland’s maritime area are places where relatively shallow waters, about 200 metres deep, suddenly slope away to depths of 4,000 metres below the surface. This area is known as the continental shelf. It is a highly productive part of our ocean where cold nutrient-rich water is pushed up the slopes by ocean currents. These nutrients mean the water here is full of life and makes for a perfect feeding ground for all sorts of animals. Many deep-diving whales spend lots of their time in this area and sea birds, like our iconic puffins, are known to spend the winters here. Along the slopes themselves and in the deep waters, fragile coral reefs thrive, with some species living to be thousands of years old.
The sediment that gathers in these areas is extremely carbon-rich, due to falling ‘marine snow’ or debris like dead plankton, fish and whale poop. If this sediment gets stirred up, tonnes of carbon can be released and make its way back into our atmosphere, but if we make sure that this sediment remains undisturbed then it has the potential to lock away huge amounts of carbon and help us in our fight against climate change.
The 16 areas of interest identified in the report highlight the need to protect large offshore areas of our ocean as well as areas along our coast. Marine Protected Areas need to take the whole ecosystem into account, not just one particular species or habitat. By taking an ‘ecosystem approach’ you allow all life within an MPA to flourish. This approach allows better protection for all the species that occur in an area, the food they rely on and the habitats they live and raise their young in, while also removing threats from the water they swim around in.
The analysis in the report is based on the best data available to Fair Seas scientists and identifies the areas of interest based on their importance for biodiversity or sensitive and rare species and habitats. The report acknowledges that more data and funding for further study and research is required to fill existing data gaps. Ireland’s Maritime Area covers a stretch of open ocean seven times the size of the island of Ireland. Therefore it’s not surprising that there are things we still don’t know about our seas. However, what we do know is that our seas need our help and we can not afford to delay putting measures in place to protect them.
Fair Seas Campaign Manager Aoife O’Mahony says;
“This report is about kick-starting the conversation among stakeholders and decision-makers nationwide. It aims to significantly ramp up the process of building an effective network of Marine Protected Areas in Irish waters which would enable Ireland to meet its 2030 commitments with the best possible outcomes for nature, climate and people. We’ve 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.”
The Fair Seas campaign is led by a coalition of Ireland’s leading environmental non-governmental organisations and networks including Irish Wildlife Trust, BirdWatch Ireland, Sustainable Water Network, Friends of the Irish Environment, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Coomhola Salmon Trust, Irish Environmental Network and Coastwatch. It is funded by Oceans 5, Blue Nature Alliance, BFCT and The Wyss Foundation.
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