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Fair Seas report highlights 16 marine areas around Ireland in need of protection

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A puffin devours sand eels on the Saltee Islands, Co Wexford. Photo: John Murphy

A puffin devours sand eels on the Saltee Islands, Co Wexford. Photo: John Murphy

A Little Tern in flight.

A Little Tern in flight.

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A puffin devours sand eels on the Saltee Islands, Co Wexford. Photo: John Murphy

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Spectacular documentaries, beach cleans and Ocean Week initiatives are positive forces in the area of marine awareness and protection, but they are just a drop in the ocean in relation to what needs to be done to protect our diverse marine habitats.

While the Irish government had committed to protecting 10% of the Irish marine region by 2020, only 2.1% of Ireland’s seas are currently designated as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). This figure is far behind our European counterparts, according to the team behind the Fair Seas campaign. The group – which is made up of a coalition of Ireland’s leading environmental non-governmental organisations and environmental networks – recently published a report which outlines 16 Areas of Interest for MPA designation in Irish waters. An Area of Interest is defined as a key biodiversity hotspot for one or more species of conservation interest.

One of these proposed areas is situated off of the south Wexford coast. The report outlines several reasons why this area is an important site that warrants protection. Firstly, it is home to a 130 km long and 20 km wide cod spawning ground, which is ‘one of only two cod spawning grounds in Irish waters’. Additionally, between 2005 and 2001, 16% of fin whale sightings within Ireland’s EEZ occurred within this site, accounting for 14% of the overall total number of individuals. Meanwhile, 14% of Risso’s dolphin sightings occurred within this site, accounting for 10% of the overall total number of individuals. Four per cent of harbour porpoise sightings occurred within this site, accounting for three per cent of the overall total number of individuals.

This area is also a particularly important spot for seabirds, with the report describing it as a ‘true hotspot for seabird activity’. According to the report, seabirds with colonies on the east coast of Ireland, as well as the coast of Wales and Cornwall in England depend on this area for vital foraging during chick-rearing. The majority of the newly arrived Mediterranean gull breeding occurs here at Lady’s Island Lake, which is also a hotspot for terns and black-headed gulls.

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Speaking following the launch on World Ocean’s Day, Marine Ecologist Karin Dubsky said that the report is intended as a conversation starter.

“The main strategic reason why we are putting this out is so that the conversation starts. It could be a year or another one and a half years until the law is put over the line,” said Dubsky, founder of Coastwatch Europe, one of the groups involved in the Fair Seas campaign.

“We know for sure that the south Wexford coast is very, very rich in biodiversity. It has all different types of habitats and therefore, it is ideal for lots of different marine life,” she said. “However, it is also really fragile. If you start dredging through them, you lose them.”

The report offered a lot of information about bird use and cetacean use in the area which, according to Dubsky, can tell us a lot about what is going on lower down in the food chain. However, she stressed that the list of potential MPAs is not an exhaustive one.

“There are some other areas where Fair Seas didn’t have enough information. There may be other areas that could be terribly important for maybe one or two species. For example, the sandbanks in north Wexford are thornback ray spawning grounds. We know that for sure because loads of mermaids purses get washed up every year from thornback and cuckoo rays,” she said. “However, that wasn’t proposed as an MPA as they were looking at different criteria. The report is not an exhaustive list.”

Some other important species that are not included in the report include the common seal and the grey seal, as pointed out by Seal Rescue Ireland’s Executive Director, Melanie Croce.

“We are huge supporters of Fair Seas and everything they’re trying to do,” she said. “However, in the report, I notice there is a stark lack of mention of seals. They talk a lot about seabirds, cetaceans, habitats and commercially-exploited species, which is important, but there is no mention of seals whatsoever. The Raven is a really important haulout site for seals. Along the Wexford coast, we get a lot of dead seals and there is evidence that this is a result of bycatch.”

“It would have been nice to see a mention of seals in here, particularly seeing The Raven as one of the MPAs.”

Croce commended the Fair Seas report as a great step in the right direction. While it may not cover all areas, she stressed the importance of designating MPAs and how, by protecting areas for certain species, it can have a knock-on effect for others.

“The designation of MPAs is really really important and by protecting some species, they become an umbrella. The threats the cetaceans would be facing are the same as seals so they would get indirect protection through a focus on cetacean protection.”

The report has been met with positivity and a lot of media interest since it was released in recent weeks, according to Dubsky. However, while conversation and attention on the plight of our marine habitats and all that lives in them is vital, she said it is crucial that action is taken too.

“My personal view is we have to, on the one hand, have a conversation about where these MPAs are, and this is long overdue. However, we also need to start actual management of the sites we already have. Those few places don’t have management plans,” she explained, referring to the 2.1% of Irish seas that are currently designated as MPAs. “We need to do the two things in parallel.”

This view was echoed by Croce.

“Enforcement of the currently protected areas is non-existent. We not only need to designate areas, we actually need to enforce the protection so it has the desired effect. The idea of MPAs is stop destructive practices but this has a spillover effect to areas around them,” she explained. “It would benefit everyone across the board to do this.”

The Irish government has committed to expanding its network of Marine Protected Areas to cover at least 30% of its marine region by 2030. Croce said we need to hold them accountable in reaching these targets.

“I would love to see the government take action and I think we all need to put pressure on the government to take action. We were one of the first countries to declare a biodiversity crisis but we have been so slow to act. We are seeing fish stock after fish stock crash. So many fishermen are decommissioning their boats because of unsustainable fishing activities. We need to protect our seas for the future, not just for biodiversity, but for Irish livelihoods going forward.”

When it comes to taking this action, Dubsky said it is important to harness local knowledge.

“We know for sure that a lot of inshore fisherman have a huge amount of knowledge, particularly of the MPAs in estuaries,” she said. “I would love to see training courses for them on site management and monitoring. Their knowledge is huge they just need a top up course in the MPA end of it. The local knowledge on the area is something they already have. We need a scheme where their knowledge and their needs are matched.”

Fair Seas seeks to protect, conserve and restore Ireland’s marine environment. Their ‘Revitalising our Seas’ report provides information on where to best protect marine species in Ireland, based on the geographic distributions of 15 species of whales and dolphins, 38 species of seabirds, 16 species of sharks, skates, rays, seven commercially exploited species, and 11 habitat indicator species. It follows a government report that outlined the shortcomings of Ireland’s present marine conservation strategy and how it needed to catch up to meet legal obligations and sustainable management of marine resources. 


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