Ireland has shown outstanding global leadership in backing efforts to protect 30 per cent of Earth’s land and seas by 2030, but it needs to help make that a global reality and move to protect its own outsized marine area, according to environmentalist Al Gore.
In a virtual address to a Fair Seas conference on marine protection in Cork on Thursday, the former US vice-president said that with a sea area 10 times larger than its land territory Ireland must pursue meaningful actions urgently on the marine front.
With the world at an inflection point in fighting interlinked climate and biodiversity crises, the particular strain on marine areas was evident as 93 per cent of excess heat in the atmosphere was being trapped in oceans, which was disrupting migratory patterns, causing mass bleaching of coral reefs and leading to more deadly storms, he said.
In creating marine protected areas (MPAs), managing them in a sustainable way was essential, he underlined.
At times, it seemed as if the political will in pursuing such actions was difficult to muster, Mr Gore said. “Political will is itself a renewable resource, and no people are better able to renew it than the people of Ireland.”
The EU biodiversity strategy calls for 30 per cent of EU waters to be protected in a MPA by 2030, with 10 per cent “strictly protected”.
Adrian Gahan, who leads National Geographic’s pristine seas project, said offshore wind projects were not compatible with strictly protected areas, while he believed the remaining 20 per cent of areas had to be “highly protected” with no industrial fishing – and that included trawling.
Ocean economist Prof Rashid Sumaila from the University of British Columbia underlined how loss of ocean biodiversity has serious consequences for humanity, such as forced migration.
On MPAs, he stressed the importance of full protection, especially in building climate resilience, and asked “what value is a condom with a hole in it?” If current fishing practices were allowed to continue, he said, there was a risk there would be “dead oceans” in coming decades, and the ability of fish to sequester carbon would be undermined.
There are many species of fish that could not be fished sustainably and should be just left alone, he suggested, mentioning, in particular long-living, slow-growing varieties.
In scaling up protection there was “no need to do everything, everywhere, all at once if we are to have just and equitable outcomes for biodiversity, climate and society”, he said.
Ireland should totally ban bottom trawling, Prof Sumaila said, and should start thinking of the country as a “large ocean state”.
Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan acknowledged that with 880,000sq km of waters, Ireland had one of the biggest marine areas in Europe. He confirmed the Marine Protected Area Bill would go before the Cabinet before the summer break and emphasised the importance of public participation in the process.
Adopting the EU’s controversial nature restoration law would bring the added benefit of helping to clean up “Ireland’s failing coastlines”, according to Green MEP Grace O’Sullivan.
The debate over the nature restoration law in Ireland has focused on rewetting targets, but the benefits of the legislation were much broader, she said.
In particular, the legally-binding targets of the proposed EU regulation to restore the EU’s seas and oceans to favourable status “will not only help animal life to recover but will also result in cleaner beaches and rivers”, she said.
The legislation is encountering stiff opposition in the European Parliament, especially from Fine Gael’s European People’s Party’ Group, which is calling for a “regulatory slowdown” in advance of elections next year, she noted. It was the last major piece of legislation under the European green deal launched by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the start of her mandate.
Both Ms von der Leyen and Irish Commissioner Mairead McGuinness have supported the law despite opposition from their own EPP political group.
“Our seas are struggling. Half of Ireland’s studied marine habitats are in decline, with over 85 per cent of habitats now in ‘unfavourable’ condition. The nature restoration law sets out to reverse this trend, with binding targets to restore 30 per cent of marine habitats to favourable status by 2030,” Ms O’Sullivan added.
“For Ireland this will be instrumental in protecting our kelp forests, habitats of species like angle sharks and also mitigate carbon emissions from sediment beds which are regularly trawled.”
The law also planned to return 25,000km of European rivers to free flowing status, she said, to tackle consistent flooding and to help species like Atlantic salmon and the endangered European eel to recover.
She said: “We are an island nation, so far we have failed to look after our seas and oceans, with over 30 locations still pumping raw sewage into the water where people swim. This law could change that, but we need all political parties on board. So far we have seen a failure of political leadership from conservatives in the European Parliament, we’re working to change their minds.”
Ms O’Sullivan has been campaigning to improve bathing facilities in riverside towns across Ireland, with a view to providing “a lido-style facility” in every seaside town in Ireland by 2030, starting with Cork city.