Marine reserves can save ocean life and sustain Ireland’s coastal communities

Opinion: Western society has fooled itself into thinking it can ‘manage’ marine wild life

A 2020 survey of Irish citizens found 92 per cent “strongly agreed” more action needs to be taken to improve the health of the ocean. Now is their chance to push for such change.

This Friday – July 30th – is the deadline for citizens to support the protection of marine life around Ireland through public consultation on the expert advisory group report entitled Expanding Ireland's Marine Protected Area (MPA) Network.

In responding to this, you should call for the establishment of a network of “marine reserves” which are nested in a sustainably managed ocean. These should increase the levels of protection in present MPA to marine reserve (fully protected MPA) status. They should be funded by the Government, negotiated with all community stakeholders, and open to the public – like our national parks.

Coastal fisheries are in crisis and being marginalised by the commoditisation of fisheries by large corporations which are established to prioritise shareholder profits. Marine protected areas (MPAs) can provide a win-win for coastal communities and marine conservation, if the Government prioritises them over big business interests.


Future generations expect us to invest in public health, education and ensure a healthy environment and flourishing nature (biodiversity). All are a core government responsibility. While add-on benefits may come from private sector funding, the core funding must be from the Government and in the public interest.

Ireland has only one marine reserve, Lough Hyne in west Cork, which is 1km by 1km in area. Contrary to the typical application of the Wildlife Act on land where hunting is prohibited, fishing is allowed there for sport. It seems incongruous to declare a place a nature reserve and then allow killing for sport there.

Therefore, we do not know what the natural situation for marine life around Ireland really is because there is nowhere that has not been fished. Should we not have some places, ethically, where marine life is safe from us killing it?

Hundreds of scientific studies show (unsurprisingly) previously fished species recover in abundance within a few years of reserve establishment. The fish grow older and larger and so produce proportionally more eggs, retain natural genetic diversity, and contribute significantly to fisheries through “spill over” of young fish out of the reserve. Fishermen also know this, and one can often identify marine reserve boundaries by the position of fishing boats and buoys of lobster pots.

Protecting marine life

I lived in New Zealand, where I taught an MSc course in MPA science and management for 16 years. After several years of lobbying, New Zealand's first "marine reserve" was created in 1975 at Leigh near Auckland city. It banned all fishing but encouraged people to visit, swim, snorkel and dive there. The 44 Marine Reserves it now has were in response to public demand.

Ireland is 50 years behind New Zealand in protecting marine life. We do not know what we are missing because there is not even one fully protected marine reserve in the country.

Inside the first New Zealand marine reserve the fish lost their fear of people, allowing snorkellers and divers to get up close and personal and take good photographs. Some of the fish there are decades older than most visitors.

Nobody ever expected it to become so popular with the public. Because of its popularity more reserves were needed to disperse visitors. The people who visited went home wanting to have a reserve near where they lived.

For the past 20 years, more than 70,000 New Zealanders have seen the difference in marine life inside and outside marine reserves by snorkelling as part of the “experiencing marine reserves” programme. Its founders were some of the schoolchildren who succeeded (after 10 years) to have two marine reserves near their school.

They formed a human chain on land, sea, and in the air to celebrate (it can be seen on YouTube). Such an enjoyable learning opportunity for people of all ages to engage with sea life would be possible in Ireland once marine reserves are established. This is the kind of vision we need for Ireland.

There are always some objections to marine reserves, as there are to any changes and public developments, like schools, hospitals, museums, and sports fields. Reserves also provide education, scientific, health and recreational benefits. However, once established the local community takes pride and ownership of these MPAs, and are supported by local fishermen (who now have more reliable catches than previously), businesses, and people promptly report any illegal activity.


No study anywhere in the world has documented a decline in or reduced profits of a fishery due to marine reserve establishment, but several show the reverse. But benefits to fisheries only arise for reserves where there is no fishing. New Zealand initially allowed sport fishing in its second marine reserve at the Poor Knights Islands but had to ban it a few years later (following pressure from tourism operators) because the designation attracted so many anglers it was being fished out.

Marine reserves are an ancient idea. The New Zealand Maori and other Indigenous people of the Pacific and southeast Asia have long known that the best way to allow fished populations to recover has been to stop fishing. This common-sense idea seems radical to utilitarian western ways of thinking.

Western society has fooled itself into thinking it can “manage” wild populations when it has no control over their food supply, environment or health (in contrast to farming). The best way to judge the effect of fishing is to have reference “reserves” which are not fished.

These marine reserves have the added benefit that they directly contribute to the adjacent fisheries among other public benefits; the Expanding Ireland's MPA Network report lists many – it was compiled by 20 experts in life and ocean sciences, marine socio-economics, maritime culture, governance and legislation and chaired by Prof Tasman Crowe of UCD Earth Institute.

Several Pacific nations – Cook Islands, Kiribati, Palau, Niue – have flipped conventional ocean management and declared most or all of their ocean an MPA. This is the precautionary principle in practice. Within the MPA they have zones for coastal communities to fish for local consumption, and they may permit commercial fishing based on a sustainability assessment.

This shatters the myth that creating MPA costs money or can only be afforded by rich countries. In fact, the reverse is true. Simple rules are more equitable, lower cost and simpler to enforce. Ireland could declare all its exclusive economic zone an MPA like other island nations.

Coastal communities have a special interest, understanding and ability to influence the sustainable use of our seas. However, they are largely side-lined by present marine governance. One way to correct this imbalance is through MPAs.

This would align with Irish and EU environmental policies, precautionary principles, biodiversity strategy and the little-used elements of the Common Fisheries Policy regarding sustainable fishing. Non-coastal communities should also support this because it will help protect the coastal environment for everyone.

The MPA report focus was on “expanding”. But before expanding, increasing the level of protection of what places are supposed to be protecting marine life should be the first priority. Once people and fishermen see the benefits of reserves they will accept the idea as a practical, low-cost way to have more sustainable coastal fisheries and conserve marine life.

If uncertain, I recommend looking at local people's testimonial videos on YouTube and some field trips (at least video calls) to New Zealand and other island nations to see their experience.

So if you are among the 92 per cent who feel the ocean needs more protection, say so, and say how, by responding to the public consultation.

Mark Costello did his PhD on Lough Hyne marine reserve and coordinated the largest marine ecological survey of Ireland in the 1990s. He is a professor in Nord University, Norway, and the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His over 200 scientific publications include more than 50 on MPAs