Waters off the south-west coast have been declared Ireland’s first “Hope Spot” in recognition of their importance to global biodiversity.
The Greater Skellig Coast joins 147 other Hope Spots identified by marine experts around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands and parts of Antarctica.
Stretching from Kenmare Bay to Dingle Bay, Tralee Bay and along the North Kerry coast to Loop Head in Co Clare, the Greater Skellig region covers 7,000 square kilometres of coastal waters.
Threatened sharks, birds and whales have found a natural sanctuary in the sea and its islands and inlets.
The idea behind Hope Spots is that the designation will reinforce national protections or encourage countries to introduce regulatory safeguards where areas are not protected.
Hope Spots are picked by experts with the Mission Blue programme founded by renowned oceanographer, Dr Sylvia Earle.
The Greater Skellig Coast is a key breeding area for several threatened species of sharks, rays and skates and is a favourite place for basking sharks.
Thousands of puffins come to breed on Skellig Michael and Puffin Island, and the area is also critical for arctic terns, sandwich terns, northern gannets, storm petrels and many other iconic seabirds.
“This Hope Spot is also a hotspot for cetaceans with bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, humpback, fin and minke whales calling this place home,” Dr Earle said.
She praised the Irish Government for committing to creating a network of Marine Protected Areas and setting a target of protecting 30pc of the country’s expansive territorial waters by 2030.
Greater Skellig has been championed by the Fair Seas coalition of Irish environmental organisations as deserving of Marine Protected Area status.
Aoife O’Mahony, Fair Seas campaign manager, said the designation as a Hope Spot would boost that goal.
“It is incredible to see a small part of Ireland’s seas being recognised as critically important to global ocean health by Mission Blue, and joining the likes of the Galapágos Islands,” she said.
“This global recognition is even more critical now as we finalise our own national Marine Protected Areas legislation.
“We have one chance to do this right and we owe it to the next generation to do this well.”
Birdwatch Ireland, the Irish Wildlife Trust and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group expressed their delight at the announcement.
“Twenty-three of Ireland’s 24 breeding seabird species are red or amber listed birds of conservation concern,” said Dr Steve Newton of Birdwatch Ireland.
“The Mission Blue Hope Spot will highlight this area globally and help to put additional pressure on all stakeholders to protect these vital species-rich areas of our ocean.”
Tourism Minister Catherine Martin welcomed the move and said our coastline makes it an attractive destination.