Vast area of Atlantic to be protected in effort to conserve seabird species

Move under Ospar Convention chaired by Ireland will protect 5 million seabirds

A vast area of the Atlantic Ocean is to be designated in an international effort to protect 5 million seabirds across 22 different species, five of which are threatened with extinction including the Atlantic puffin.

The move follows an historic agreement reached under the Ospar Convention.

The marine protected area (MPA) in the high seas off south west Ireland covers an expanse larger than the land mass of the UK and Germany combined.

The designation was agreed at a meeting of the 15 governments and the EU in Portugal on Friday. Ireland is current chair of the convention which aims to protect the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic.


A new environment strategy for the area was also agreed at the meeting in Cascais, which sets out ambitious commitments for the coming decade. This was "an effort to turn the tide on three of the biggest issues facing the ocean: the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and pollution, including marine plastic pollution", according to Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan, who represented the Government.

He described the outcome as “a really positive development in the future protection of seabirds and biodiversity. Ireland will play a lead role in protecting this area, at the same time as we work towards creating a network of MPAs to 30 per cent of our maritime area by 2030.”

To be known as the North-Atlantic Current and Evlanov Sea Basin MPA, it will protect an area of 600,000sq km and have legal backing. Based on tracking data, it was found to be a critically important feeding and foraging area used by seabirds breeding on coasts in north-east Europe, and by those migrating across the globe or nesting in other parts of the world.

MPAs conserve biodiversity by protecting and restoring endangered species and ecosystems, while enhancing sustainable fisheries. They are recognised by the UN as the key mechanism to address biodiversity loss and climate change impacts in marine environments.

Robust scientific evidence, including work by researchers in University College Cork (UCC), informed the designation by showing the value and importance of year-round protection in such a richly biodiverse region. It is also likely to benefit wide-ranging basking sharks and leatherback turtles who frequent this area.

The research also suggests permanent, area-based designations are one of the best ways to tackle the main problems for these birds, such as being caught up in fishing nets, overfishing, energy production, mining and pollution.

“Protecting wide-ranging habitats such as kelp forests will help to ensure the ocean’s capacity to naturally sequester and store carbon remains intact. Protecting rare species that only occur in the northeast Atlantic will help to ensure that the global biodiversity crisis is halted and populations of threatened species have the chance to recover,” said Mr Noonan.

The agreement includes a commitment to reduce loss of plastic pellets into the marine environment.

Ministers reaffirmed the importance of the upcoming COP26 global climate summit, and underlined Ospar’s leadership role in global negotiations on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the high seas and in supporting actions to achieve the 2030 UN sustainable development goals. It is one of the oldest multilateral, science-based environmental conventions in the world.

Ospar chairman Richard Cronin said: "The time for talking is over, we now embark on a decade of action to protect and conserve the northeast Atlantic."

Ocean ambassador Dr Sylvia Earle added: "Actions taken in the next 10 years, will determine the fate of the next 10 thousand years."

Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien paid tribute to Mr Cronin, who is principal adviser of the marine environment section in the Department of Housing, Local Government, for his work as in brokering the agreement.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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