Government must intervene to protect vulnerable seagrass beds, says NGO

Minister welcomes move to convene Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity later this year

The Government needs to intervene urgently to protect vulnerable seagrass beds located around the Irish coastline, which can act as powerful carbon sinks and protect marine biodiversity, according to Coastwatch.

While the location and extent of these critical ecosystems has yet to be fully determined, too many of known sites were under environmental pressure, Coastwatch director Karin Dubsky told a World Wetlands Day event on Wednesday.

Immediate action was needed, she suggested, by linking seagrass protection to new marine area planning legislation, whereby local authorities are taking over responsibility for the near shore in their areas.

Seagrasses should be subject to a “flora protection order”, she suggested, while their management could be incorporated in new “designated marine area plans” with inputs from local authorities as they take over responsibility for near shore zones later this year.

The plans should allow for informed public participation and data generated by citizen scientists and backed by supports and guidance for local authorities, Ms Dubsky added.

Dr Tobias Salathé, senior advisor to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, confirmed 35 per cent of global wetlands have been lost since the 1970s – the rate of loss was three times than of forests.

These areas, which include seagrass beds, should be valued in socio-economic terms given the benefits they provide, especially in the form of nature-based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. This meant, he added, “we need to manage them better and to restore them [where possible].”

Minister for State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan acknowledged seagrass meadows are rich and valuable habitats for nature, and important carbon sinks.

"I'm determined that they will be protected and to that end, I intend to include seagrass in the list of species and habitats that will benefit from protection under new Marine Protected Area legislation currently in development in my department," he said.

The new legislation aims to afford a level of protection that goes beyond what current laws allow for in Irish waters, “giving a further layer of conservation to ensure the integrity of this vital species and the habitat in which it thrives”, Mr Noonan added.

Meanwhile he welcomed confirmation by the Taoiseach Micheál Martin that a proposal to convene a Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity this year will be brought to Cabinet shortly – it was a key programme for government commitment.

He added: "It couldn't come at a more crucial time: 2022 will see the Biodiversity Cop in China - the sister event to Cop26 in Glasgow - and the development of a new National Biodiversity Action Plan, which will set the trajectory for biodiversity action across Ireland for the next five years. We need the public's voice at the heart of the national response to the biodiversity crisis, and this Assembly will help us to do that."

There was also a need to ensure the voices young people were part of the conversation. To that end, his department is exploring how to stage a young people’s biodiversity assembly. “I hope that the outcomes of this initiative can support and inform the main Citizens’ Assembly,” he said.

Mr Noonan stressed there was a long way to go to alleviate the threats and pressures on biodiversity in Ireland and to bring about the scale of restoration and recovery of nature needed to protect invaluable species and habitats.

“I’m hopeful that this Citizens’ Assembly will help us to bring that challenge into focus and, through its deliberations, support a national dialogue on the solutions. 2022 will be a big year for nature,” he predicted.

Mr Noonan has launched a promotional video to raise public awareness of the value of peatlands as key ecosystems, providing socio-economic and environmental benefits as well as being large, long-term carbon stores with unique biodiversity.

Since 2018, with increased funding and resources, the National Parks & Wildlife Service has restored or is actively restoring over 5,000 ha of protected raised bogs. This year will see the conclusion of the LIFE “Living Bog” project which restored 12 raised bogs designated as Natura 2000 sites (SACs) in the Midlands region.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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