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Sightings of basking sharks off Irish coast should give us hope

The ocean is warming at twice the rate it was 20 years ago, but we still have time to legislate and establish Ireland as a leader in marine protection

Circling basking sharks captured by drone off Co Clare. Photograph: Simon Berrow

At the beginning of June, Unesco published its annual State of the Ocean report. Just days before World Ocean Day, the report laid out in stark detail the scale of the challenge that confronts the global community to restore our ocean to health. But despite the report’s alarming assessment, there are reasons to be hopeful and, encouragingly, Ireland could prove to be a leader in global efforts to protect our greatest natural resource.

The report pulls no punches. The ocean is warming at twice the rate it was 20 years ago. Sea levels are rising at twice the rate of 30 years ago, now totalling an already alarming 9cm. There are about 500 coastal “dead zones” identified in the report, areas where almost no marine life remains due to a dwindling oxygen content, brought on by warming temperatures and pollutants, including wastewater and agricultural run-off.

And all the while, our ongoing struggle to phase out fossil fuel use is steadily increasing the ocean’s acidification, as it is forced to absorb more and more CO2 from the atmosphere, playing havoc with delicate marine ecosystems.

Irish seas are not immune to some of these pressures. The most comprehensive assessment of the North Atlantic to date was conducted by OSPAR in 2023, and it highlighted climate change and marine biodiversity loss as twin crises affecting the health of our coastal and marine environment. The increasing acidification detailed in the report was shown to be affecting the ability of organisms to form shells and skeletons threatening their existence, and the intricate web of marine biodiversity.


The impacts are not just felt under the water. Two of Ireland’s best known and most loved birds, the kittiwake and puffin are globally threatened, and are considered highly vulnerable. There are multiple reasons behind this, but warming seas impacting on the marine food web is a contributory factor.

But even in the face of these challenges, there is hope. Most significantly, the Government has repeatedly promised to legislate for an ambitious Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Bill, which could be the most important piece of marine conservation legislation in Ireland in generations. A strong Bill would see 30 per cent of Ireland’s seas designated as protected areas, safeguarding our rarest, most threatened marine wildlife. It would also allow for 10 per cent of our waters to be afforded the top tier of environmental protections, thereby giving marine habitats and species the best possible opportunity to not only survive but to thrive.

But crucially, it will also place stakeholder engagement, particularly coastal communities, at the centre of those efforts. This commitment to stakeholder and community engagement, which is something the Government has signalled will form a central plank of the MPA Bill, could be one of the Bill’s most important elements.

In developing its MPA legislation relatively late compared to European peers, the Government has had the benefit of recognising the importance of engaging communities in marine protection, not just as an end in itself, but for better environmental outcomes. More engaged communities are better stewards of the environment, more likely to engage in community science initiatives, report mismanagement, and generally perform as custodians of the ocean. Insufficient community engagement last year led to the Scottish government shelving plans to designate 10 per cent of Scottish waters as highly protected.

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A more encouraging example of community engagement can be seen in the marked increase in sightings of basking sharks off the Irish coastline. While the record number of sightings this year may likely reflect a greater number of basking sharks in our waters, it is also an indication of coastal communities’ interest in marine wildlife, and their growing desire to be involved in citizen science programmes aimed at documenting sightings.

The increase in basking sharks in our waters has brought economic benefits, with a proliferation of coastal eco-tourism operators being established, bringing new streams of revenue into areas of the country that have often faced significant economic challenges. While fishers will benefit from the restoration of the fish stocks that come with well-managed MPAs, the opportunity to diversify into marine eco-tourism is welcomed by many.

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The Unesco report describes MPAs as beacons of hope, crucial for supporting food security and the overall health of our oceans. It is a view apparently supported by the Government, as detailed in the programme for government, but despite being promised for more than a year, the Government has failed to deliver this key environmental law. However, even with a general election imminent, there is time to introduce a law that establishes Ireland as a world leader in marine protection. But it needs to act quickly, and ambition and community engagement need to be at its core.

Sorley McCaughey is a representative of the Fair Seas campaign, a coalition of environmental NGOs including Birdwatch Ireland, Irish Wildlife Trust, Environmental Pillar, Streamscapes, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Coastwatch and Sustainable Water Network