Marine environmental situation is stark, Oireachtas committee told

Environmentalists seek common ground on conservation with fishing and wind energy

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (NI) had shown seabird species such as Puffins were experiencing significant declines in Ireland. Photograph: iStock

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (NI) had shown seabird species such as Puffins were experiencing significant declines in Ireland. Photograph: iStock

 

A new vision for how the fishing and marine wind energy industries might sustainably coexist with native oyster beds and kelp forests off the Irish coasts, needs to be agreed by all parties, the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change has been told.

The committee is examining the marine sector’s contribution to a 51 percent reduction in the State’s carbon emissions by 2030.

On Tuesday committee members were told Ireland’s seas were already under increasing pressure from pollution, invasive species and climate change.

Ellen MacMahon, policy officer with the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) said the marine environmental situation was “stark” and concern had been expressed by a range of authorities including Birdwatch Ireland. She said the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (NI) had shown seabird species such as Puffins and Kittiwake were experiencing significant declines in Ireland.

Ms McMahon said 13 percent of the Irish sea bed had been disturbed by bottom fishing which involves dragging heavy weighted nets across the sea floor, in an effort to catch fish. Bottom fishing churns up seabed sediments, which are the planet’s largest carbon stores, she told the Committee.

“ Bottom trawling is a major emitter of carbon with some studies showing that it emits as much carbon as the aviation industry”, she said.

Turning to the wind energy industry she said “we recognise the role that offshore renewable energy will play in decarbonising our economy and tackling climate change”. But she added: “marine protected areas are often overlooked in the role that they can play in addressing the twin climate and biodiversity emergencies”.

Dr Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group said offshore wind “cannot be considered in isolation and needs to be integrated with fisheries management initiatives and designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). He said Ireland had a poor track record of environmental monitoring and enforcement. He said the aim should be “to ensure offshore marine renewable energy is not at further cost to Ireland’s already depleted marine habitats and species. ” “Strong policies, supported by legislation, are necessary”, he said.

Stephen Kavanagh of Native Oyster Reef Restoration Ireland (NORRI) said the oyster reefs and kelp forests of the Irish coasts were rich in biodiversity and potential for employment and earnings. He said during the 1800s some 90,000 barrels of oysters a year were harvested from the Co Wicklow coast - a figure which in today’s terms would equate to an income of €90million.

He said the organisation was working well with developers of the proposed offshore windfarm at the Coddling Bank and SSE Airtricity which owns the Arklow Bank windfarm. Mr Kavanagh said there was potential for great cooperation protecting the marine environment.

Mr Kavanagh said NORRI wants to create a pilot study restoration site in Co. Wicklow which will become a centre of excellence in integrated marine restoration and conservation that will attract international attention and make Ireland a world leader in sustainable coastal management.

“The site will show how an area that has been completely over exploited can be regenerated to its natural, resilient healthy conditions and serve as an example to be modelled in other parts of the world”, he said.