Nearly 50 marine species in Irish waters face extinction

Irish Wildlife Trust calls for full legal protection for threatened sealife

Extinction threatens 48 species living in the Irish marine environment, including fish, crustaceans, shellfish and invertebrates, according to a new Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) report.

The IWT is now calling for full legal protection for the 48 marine species.

Among the species facing extinction are sharks and rays, as well as five types of seaweed. Three of the fish species are already feared to be extinct in Irish waters.

In the Protecting Our Ocean's Wealth report, which was issued on Monday, the IWT said the kind of protection afforded to wildlife in Ireland now needs to be extended to marine species.


The species it listed for protection were chosen based on four criteria:

– The species were assessed by scientists as threatened with extinction, or “near threatened”. Basking sharks, porbeagle sharks, halibut and turbot fall into this category;

– The species are already benefiting from some legal protection under the EU’s Habitats Directive but this is not sufficient to ensure long-term wellbeing, as is the case with Atlantic salmon and lampreys;

– There is evidence of a marked decline of the species in Irish waters. This is the case for purple sea urchins and the native oyster, and

– The species are only to be found in “a very localised distribution”. The short-snouted seahorse and some anemones fall into this category.

Special protections

Protection of wildlife in Ireland falls within the Wildlife Act. Since 1976, this law has listed species requiring special protections, such as restrictions on hunting or the legal protection of habitats.

While this legislation includes many of Ireland’s native animals, including deer, seals, badgers, and pine martens, and our most threatened plants, “it expressly excludes the listing of marine fish and invertebrates without the blessing of the Minister with responsibility for fisheries”, the report adds.

“To date, no such marine creature has been afforded protection – something that is starkly out of step with our European neighbours. This is despite the fact that many marine species occurring in Irish waters are threatened with extinction,” the report notes.

It says that where species are commercially exploited, or the target of recreational angling, legal protection would promote the recovery of depleted populations or the designation of key areas for their conservation.

The IWT is not against “the wise exploitation of marine resources” but believes this must take place within a robust legal framework, the report adds.

Plastic pollution

IWT campaigns officer Pádraic Fogarty said Irish marine life was under threat on many fronts, due to factors including damaging fishing practices and plastic pollution.

“Legal protection for our most threatened species will not on its own resolve these issues. But along with marine protected areas, control of supertrawlers and other measures, it is a necessary element in the path to recovery,” he added.

The IWT said absence of such protections had led to chronic overexploitation of certain species, notably angel sharks, which are now “critically endangered”, and the native oyster, which “now struggle for survival in a handful of depleted populations”.

The basking shark is the second largest fish in the sea, but the State is the only country in its range where it is not legally protected.

Halibut, wolffish and the common sturgeon may already be extinct in Irish waters, while the short-snouted seahorse is known only from the coasts of Dublin, Clare, and east Cork, as well as Belfast Lough.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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