Marine Protected Areas

Ambition is critical

While Seasearch Ireland welcomes the move to designate Marine Protected Areas in Ireland it is clear from the long term damage that has occurred to the inshore marine environment in Ireland that our current view on what a health ecosystem would consist of has been eroded via the shifting baseline syndrome. As a result we would feel that in addition to the protection of existing areas of biodiversity any meaningful network of MPAs must include degraded areas that will be the subject of habitat restoration projects. In order to adequately protect Irish inshore waters MPAs should be set up on the precautionary principle where any activity that has the potential to cause damage is excluded automatically and activities are only allowed on a case by case basis, rather than the current system where the burden of proof is to demonstrate damage. Inshore MPAs should be designated with the aim of achieving as broad a spatial spread as possible so that they can be used as a showcase of the incredible marine biodiversity that Ireland holds.

Defining MPAs

The current system of SPA and SACs have failed utterly to protect marine habitats in Ireland. In order for the designation of MPAs to have any meaningful impact it is vital that they are truly marine protected areas.

The IUCN definition of a an MPA “A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”, is implicit in the idea of long-term conservation and makes no mention of economic activities. Industrial fishing, particularly using towed gear should be excluded from all MPAs and Seasearch Ireland is of the opinion that MPAs should largely conform to category Ia (strict nature reserve), Ib (Wilderness area) and category II (National Park).

Dredging and bottom towed gear

Beyond the immense damage to habitats that dredging causes it is now clear that bottom towed gear has a serious deleterious effect in terms of carbon emissions (Sala et al, 2021). It is clear from the historical records cited in Robert’s 2008 book an Unnatural History of the Sea that from the inception of this practice the environmental devastation and the effects on fish populations from dredging and bottom towed gear were apparent. The science on the negative impacts are clear and the time to outlaw this archaic practice is long overdue. 

MPAs cannot allow dredging or bottom towed gear under any circumstances if they are to warrant that name

Special status for Serpula vermicularis reefs

Biogenic reefs are created by an organism that is raised above the seabed and provides structure and refuge for other marine organisms to grow, feed, and reproduce. There are few species that create biogenic reefs in cold waters, including deep water corals and nearshore coralline algae (maerl) beds, and all have a limited in distribution in Ireland, vulnerable to disturbance and of conservation concern. The polychaete tube worm Serpula vermicularis (tube worm or organ pipe worm, though there is no standardised common name) formsreefs that have been found at 5 sites in Europe (Loch Creran, Scotland; Taranto, Italy; Salt Lake/Ard Bear, Co Galway; Killary Harbour, Co Galway; and Leitir Calladh, Co Galway). That 3 of these sites occur in Ireland and yet are afforded no protection should be a source of shame to all concerned. Seasearch Ireland has documented the effects from the intact reef in 2012 to the heavily damaged reef in 2018. Since then further damage has occurred to the reefs at this site. Areas where intact Serpula vermicularis reefs occur should be designated as MPAs as a matter of urgency to prevent further damage to this unique habitat.

This would necessitate the banning of trawling, dredging, the use of pots and the dropping of anchors in areas where Serpula vermicularis is known to occur.

Public participation

International evidence shows that bottom up models for designation and management are most effective (Gaymer et al, 2014) however due to the undue delay in progressing legislation of the designation of MPAs it is not possible to wait to complete such a process. However, management and monitoring of MPAs should, in so far as possible be managed at a local level. In particular Seasearch Ireland are of the opinion that each MPA should be assigned a designated conservation ranger from the National Parks and Wildlife Service to monitor the site through a transparent and, ideally citizen science led, approach to reporting on the state of the habitats and species present. This would allow the conservation rangers to also fulfil the dual role of promoting the benefits of the MPA and ecotourism in the local area.

Make your own submission

We would encourage all those with an interest in the marine environment to make a submission to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage by the Friday deadline.

Submission to Department

Anyone who wishes to echo the points raised in the Seasearch submission is more than welcome to copy the text directly or to mirror the language if they wish or you can find alternative wordings and further suggestions at the Irish Wildlife Trusts website.

Irish Wildlife Trust