What’s the issue?
There are numerous government policies, EU directives and national legislation that aim to effectively manage Ireland’s marine environment in a sustainable way. However, to date, none of these instruments are leading to the desired outcomes of healthy, productive and resilient seas.
In 2021, Ireland’s marine planning system was overhauled through the establishment of a new framework guided by the National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF) (Ireland’s first Maritime Spatial Plan) and supporting legislation (The Maritime Area Planning Act 2021).
The new planning system establishes an overarching policy framework and new consent regime for the maritime area. However, the plan and supporting legislation has been heavily critisised by e-NGOs for failing to implement specific articles and objectives of the EU MSP Directive.
In terms of marine protection, Ireland has only designated a mere 2.3% of our maritime area as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). The level of meaningful protection is even less than 2.3% given the absence of management plans for these protected sites. There is also no legal mechanism for implementing protected sites beyond our territorial waters, meaning that many habitats and species are left without any form of legal protection.
Ireland is also failing to meet a number of indicators for healthy seas through the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). The most recent assessment of Good Environmental Status (GES) found that only six out of 11 descriptors were meeting criteria for GES, and many of the descriptors were deemed by SWAN to have been presented in an optimistic way.
The lack of an effective marine spatial plan, low levels of marine protection and an optimistic view that Ireland’s seas are in a relatively healthy state has an impact on the entire marine management system. Additional pressures such as offshore renewable energy infrastructure will be applied in the absence of effective protection, strategic planning and a true assessment of the carrying capacity of the system.
What needs to change?
It is vital that Ireland introduces interim protections to protect sensitive areas that may be required in our future MPA network. Additionally, all existing protected sites such as SACs must have management plans implemented as a matter of urgency. Ireland must prioritise the establishment of bespoke MPA legislation if our target for achieving 10% marine protection as soon as possible and 30% protection by 2030 are to be realised.
There is a need for the NMPF to be reviewed as soon as possible so that existing gaps (including the lack of spatial and temporal data) can be addressed.
The level of ambition within Ireland’s MSFD must be increased and adequately resourced. Furthermore, an effective monitoring programme and holistic suite of measures to address the identified pressures must be implemented.