Irish Sea needs better protection from environmental threats, says new alliance of conservationists

European Parliament backs resolution tabled by Irish MEP Grace O’Sullivan to increase ocean protection in the face of ecosystem collapse

Conservationists from countries surrounding the Irish Sea have formed a new alliance “to turn a tide of inaction” by ensuring it is better protected in the face of multiple environmental threats.

While there is some protection of the Irish Sea, management of the area “is weak”, a review by the Irish Sea Network (ISN) has found.

The Irish Sea “is under significant and increasing pressure” from climate change and the impact of fishing, aquaculture, development, shipping, aggregates, military activity, recreational activity and pollution, which is undermining habitats and accelerating species loss, it warns.

While there are more than 15 million people living around the Irish Sea and many more visiting for holidays, “only a small percentage of them realise what wildlife lives there and just how important it is for biodiversity and the environment”.


“Strategic regional planning, with ecosystems at the heart of decision-making, requires all Irish Sea nations to work together to reduce impact upon sensitive wildlife habitats and carbon stores,” ISN said on Friday.

“While 36 per cent of the Irish Sea is designated as a marine protected area (MPA) by all the nations of the Irish Sea, only 5 per cent has any management in place and less than 0.01 per cent is fully protected. Ireland contributes only about 1.4 per cent of the 36 per cent designation,” it noted.

Organisations in the network are the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) in Ireland; Manx Wildlife Trust; North Wales Wildlife Trust; the North West Wildlife Trusts; Scottish Wildlife Trust; The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales; and Ulster Wildlife.

SWAN policy officer Ellen MacMahon said: “Wildlife does not adhere to lines drawn on maps, so we need to think at an Irish Sea scale.”

She added: “Millions of people around the Irish Sea rely on it for food, employment and wellbeing, but many overlook its role in fighting against climate change and its importance for wildlife. Few know about the incredibly diverse habitats that support a huge amount of amazing wildlife — giant basking sharks, leatherback turtles, beautiful starfish and jellyfish, dolphins, porpoises, seal and sharks, as well as internationally important seabirds like Manx shearwater and guillemots.”

Without protection and proper management, much of this wildlife faces an uncertain future, she believed. “We must ensure damaging activities like dredging, development and unsustainable fishing methods are managed to ensure that vitally important areas for the environment are protected and we give space for nature’s recovery.”

ISN called on politicians and business leaders to work with them to ensure “this is a sea where wildlife can flourish”.

The Irish Sea is about to get much busier, said SWAN co-ordinator Sinéad O’Brien. “We are about to see a huge expansion of offshore renewable energy projects, but if we want to tackle the twin climate and biodiversity emergencies, we need robust marine planning which ensures space for nature through a network of effective MPAs covering a minimum of 30 per cent of Ireland’s waters.”

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has backed a resolution on ocean protection “in face of ecosystem collapse” tabled by Irish MEP Grace O’Sullivan.

The move also seeks to protect Ireland’s oceans and the broader North Atlantic, including reducing plastic waste to ensure cleaner coasts, scaling up of MPAs and a definitive end to whaling which continues in the North Atlantic.

In a first for the parliament, the resolution on strengthening ocean governance and biodiversity includes a call to ban oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

In the Irish context, she pointed out that nearly half of all habitats surveyed by the National Parks & Wildlife Service in recent years had declined in status, with 85 per cent now in an inadequate condition. “This includes fragile ecosystems such as Roaringwater Bay in Cork or Kenmare Bay in Kerry,” she added.

“I wanted to get a strong resolution on the record from the European Parliament ahead of the upcoming COP15 in Montreal in December. [It] is a conference that helps guide international responses to the terrifying collapse in biodiversity, which we are also witnessing in Ireland.”

While many species on land struggle to deal with changing temperatures, that impact is even more difficult for marine biodiversity, where a fraction of a degree change can wipe out entire areas, the Green MEP said. “It can also see explosions in populations like jellyfish or algal blooms, which is not good for the delicate balance of the oceans.”

Commenting on Ireland’s global role, Ms O’Sullivan said: “As one of the only remaining island nations in the EU, Ireland and Irish leaders should be spearheading all efforts to protect the sea from destructive activities like mining and dredging as well as from plastic and fertiliser pollution. I hope to see the Government designate MPAs as a matter of priority... to show we are leaders in climate action.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times