A new coalition of environmental groups has identified 16 sites in Irish waters it says should urgently be declared Marine Protected Areas.
They are home to critically endangered sharks, vital seabird colonies and 15 types of whales and dolphins.
They also provide feeding and breeding grounds for animals threatened with extinction such as Atlantic puffins and blue whales.
Just 2pc of Ireland’s coastal and ocean territory has protected status. While the Government has pledged to expand that to 30pc by 2030, the Fair Seas coalition says faster action is needed.
The 16 sites it has identified in a 240-page report – eight in coastal areas and eight in the open sea – make up 36pc of the country’s marine territory.
Designation as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) would not automatically rule out fishing, wind turbines or other commercial activities but would set boundaries for acceptable use.
“Ireland needs a core of fully protected MPAs representative of its species and habitats that can be a reference for human effects elsewhere,” said Mark John Costello, a professor of marine ecology.
“Another set of MPAs may allow some uses, for example low footprint finfish, shellfish and/or seaweed aquaculture, fishing that does not damage habitats, and energy generation, using the fully protected MPA to gauge their effects.
"These MPAs should be nested within a comprehensive strategy for sustainable use based on the precautionary principle, for all of Ireland’s seas.”
Fair Seas includes non-governmental environmental groups such as the Irish Wildlife Trust, BirdWatch Ireland, the Sustainable Water Network, Coastwatch, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group and Friends of the Irish Environment.
The Government said last March it was drawing up legislation that would allow for designation of protected areas and gathering data on what areas should receive designation.
Oonagh Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland said there was no time to lose.
“Ireland is a laggard when it comes to protecting and restoring nature on land and sea,” she said.
“We have been endowed with a wealth of marine life but are squandering it.”
The report acknowledges concerns the fishing industry may have about restricting marine activity, but cites international examples where MPAs allowed fish stocks to replenish – which boosted smaller coastal fisheries.
Fair Seas campaign manager Aoife O’Mahony said: “This report is about kick-starting the conversation among stakeholders and decision-makers nationwide.”