Scale up of protected marine areas will not be unduly restrictive, Oireachtas committee told

Ensuring ‘stakeholder consultation’ critical to effective MPAs in Ireland, marine ecologist says

Designating marine protected areas (MPAs) in Irish coastal waters “does not entail putting a fence up around the area and preventing anything from happening in it”, according to a leading marine ecologist.

In some cases, however, there may be grounds for this – especially where Ireland has unique and internationally important habits, Prof Tasmin Crowe told Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage on Tuesday.

The committee is examining the Marine Protected Areas Bill 2023, which will facilitate moves to protect 30 per cent of Ireland’s maritime area by 2030 – its marine waters extend over an area seven times its land mass.

“The new EU biodiversity strategy seeks ‘strict protection’ for 10 per cent of our maritime area, though that is not explicitly reflected in the Bill,” added Prof Crowe who is based at UCD Earth Institute.


For each Irish MPA there will be “stated objectives” which relate to the specific species, habitat or other feature or features that the MPA is designated to protect, he noted.

“Conservation measures – regulations, restrictions or actions – will be tailored to those objectives, such that an activity that does not conflict with those objectives would not be restricted,” said Prof Crowe who chaired an expert group who prepared a report on expanding Ireland’s MPA network.

“In other cases, activities may be able proceed in modified form. For example, if protecting a seagrass bed, leisure boats would perhaps be able to pass over it, but not to anchor in it,” he explained.

A key provision of the Bill, “perhaps the single most important one”, was for stakeholder consultation and participation throughout the process of identifying and managing MPAs but the legislation should explicitly refer to them, he said. “This kind of co-creation and co-management is becoming a key principle in MPAs around the world.”

“The aim is to foster a sense of ownership and stewardship. It is important to give real opportunity for discussion of management measures and regulations. This will help engender understanding of and voluntary support for the agreed rules, but it is also important that final responsibility for enforcement lies with the state and that mechanisms are in place to ensure compliance,” he added.

There should be a firm commitment to protect of 30 per cent of Ireland’s marine area by 2030 ‑ and possibly even more ‑ rather than reference to “up to 30″ in the Bill, he said.

In response to Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin, he accepted the need to identify where decisions needed to be prioritised such as with offshore wind energy but without undermining the designation process.

He agreed the legislation would require substantial resourcing and to address lots of data gaps on species and habitats – “basic data on where things are”. Management of MPAs also needed to be backed by clarity on designations; rigorous monitoring and enforcement where required, Prof Crowe added.

He welcomed provision in the legislation for an independent expert body and other sources of advice to inform the Minister’s decisions. “This is also very important, partly because trust, impartiality and objectivity are key and also because this approach draws on recognised expertise from the full range of disciplinary perspectives needed to co-create an efficient effective network of MPAs.”

A key part of the Bill’s rationale was scope to designate for “features that cannot be explicitly protected under EU directives”, to designate for protection against specific pressures and to adapt in the face of climate change and changing priorities and through periodic reviews on a cycle of six years or less, he said.

As well as threatened and declining species and habitats, ecologically important species and habitats can also be conserved, respecting their roles in providing essential habitat for many other species, as can essential ecosystem services such as productivity and carbon sequestration, said Prof Crowe who is chair of the National Biodiversity Forum.

The Bill acknowledges “transboundary considerations” which was important as “marine life does not respect international boundaries and it is essential that there is some joined up thinking with our neighbours”.

The legislation represented a very significant step change in our relationship with our maritime environment, he said. It presented “a huge opportunity to better manage our interactions with it, both for the health and sustainability of the ecosystems themselves but also for the wellbeing and prosperity of current and future generations”.

This aspiration was shared by the stakeholders they had engaged with in preparing the report and was also reflected in the extensive public consultation that followed.

Many of the principles enshrined in the Bill also form the basis for recommendations emerging from the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, Prof Crowe believed, while it underlined the value in stakeholder consultation.

He said there was merit in highlighting in the Bill the ability of marine areas to sequester carbon, as habitats facilitated mitigation of emissions but also adaptation in, for example, reducing the impact of storms and storm surges exacerbated by global warming.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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