The battle to save Ireland’s biodiversity will take place at sea

We urgently need ambitious marine conservation measures to be implemented, so that we can reach the required standards in all areas of our waters

Biodiversity on and around this island has been affected by human activity to such an extent that what was once abundant is now rare, what was rare is almost extinct, and what was close to extinction is now gone. Ireland needs to take decisive action now, not only to stop but to reverse the decline and loss of our most vulnerable plants, animals and habitats.

That was the clear take-home message from a very special meeting within the walls of Dublin Castle in May of this year for the first gathering of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss. Chaired by Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, this was the first Citizens’ Assembly anywhere in the world to debate and discuss the decline of nature and what can be done to stop it.

Those in the room, as well as those who attended online, heard sobering presentations about the extent of biodiversity loss from a global perspective. This was especially poignant when it was followed by images of the truly wonderful and beautiful wildlife Ireland has to offer today. Just last weekend, the Assembly gathered once again in Dublin Castle learning about everything from peatland restoration and the rights of nature to environmental stewardship and responsibility.

It is only when areas designated for nature are properly managed, and are achieving their conservation objectives, that they positively contribute to tackling biodiversity loss

The 99-strong assembly now has the important task of reviewing the evidence to make a suite of strong recommendations to the Government. If implemented properly, the Assembly’s suggestions could help guide the Government on how to effectively tackle the biodiversity crisis.

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Given that Ireland’s seas are more than seven times the size of its land mass, much of Ireland’s biodiversity occurs in the marine environment.

The European Union adopted an ambitious Marine Strategy Framework Directive in 2008 with the aim of protecting the marine environment more effectively. Its main goal was to achieve Good Environmental Status for EU marine waters by 2020. This is defined as “ecologically diverse and dynamic oceans and seas which are clean, healthy and productive”. Unfortunately, Ireland failed to achieve Good Environmental Status in the targeted timeframe, falling short in more than half the descriptors assessed.

We need ambitious marine conservation measures to be implemented so that we can reach the required standards in all areas of our seas.

The current Government is committed to achieving a minimum of having 30 per cent of Irish waters designated and managed as Marine Protected Areas by 2030, up from the current figure of 2 per cent. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are areas of our seas and coasts legally protected from activities that damage the habitats, wildlife and natural processes that occur there. Like a National Park in the ocean, they are an important conservation tool that countries around the world are using to help improve the health of our ocean.

The evidence is clear: it is only when areas designated for nature are properly managed and are achieving their conservation objectives, that they positively contribute to tackling biodiversity loss.

Yet there is growing acknowledgement amongst scientists and the general public that simply protecting what nature we have left is no longer good enough. Investing in restoration programmes and offering biodiversity a helping hand to recover and thrive is critical to ensuring these vulnerable coastal habitats and endangered species are a feature of our seas for generations to come.

What is stopping us from replanting our once luscious seagrass meadows, re-aligning our coastal protection to promote the creation of new saltmarsh, or reseeding our formerly abundant but now struggling oyster reefs? As if we needed another reason to take decisive action to protect marine biodiversity, many of these species and habitats are “carbon sinks”, meaning they play an important role in locking and storing away carbon for potentially thousands of years, therefore helping us not only tackle the biodiversity emergency, but the climate crises too.

Nature must be weaved into every facet of how we teach, guide and lead our children from an early age

There is much to do to protect biodiversity in our coastal and far-off waters, but just as important is what we do in our classrooms and in our schools. Nature and biodiversity must become part of the mainstream school curricula in Ireland. Nature must be weaved into every facet of how we teach, guide and lead our children from an early age. Critically, this includes promoting and facilitating greater involvement of Ireland’s young people in policy, law and decision-making. The voices of Ireland’s youth must not only be heard, they must be listened to and acted upon.

As part of this process, the Citizens’ Assembly is asking for submissions from the public and organisations to help inform their debate and deliberation. The more voices calling for better protection for nature, the stronger, louder and more powerful it is. The Citizens’ Assembly can’t initiate any new projects or programmes directly, but as the representative voice of all Irish citizens on biodiversity loss, their recommendations will be difficult for the Government and decision makers to ignore.

For me, healthy seas full of wildlife are the ultimate prize to be won at Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.

Donal Griffin is the marine policy officer for the Fair Seas Campaign, a coalition environmental non-governmental organisations and networks including Irish Wildlife Trust, BirdWatch Ireland, Sustainable Water Network, Friends of the Irish Environment, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Coomhola Salmon Trust, Irish Environmental Network and Coastwatch