Six national governments (there’s one on the Isle of Man) share nominal protection of 36 per cent of the Irish Sea. The Republic contributes just 1.4 per cent of it, and only a tiny fraction has any active management. This has prompted creation of the Irish Sea Network (ISN), a partnership of NGOs drawn from all six nations. With the promise of yet more offshore turbines, it wants their power matched by well-researched and effective Marine Protected Areas.
The ISN brings together wildlife trusts in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man, plus the Republic’s Sustainable Water Network (Swan), itself an alliance of mostly freshwater NGOs. Backed by two leading environmental charities in the UK, the ISN has published a major online review of the Irish Sea. The sheer diversity of marine habitats and species and the complex national politics of conservation makes it an encyclopedic read.
Clasped between islands, with its own swirls and stillness’s of water, the Irish Sea shapes ecosystems with a huge variety of wildlife. At either side, and north to south, are muddy plains and shelves of sand that shelter seabed animals and endangered species such as the angel shark and flapper skate. Around the sea’s deep basin, a gyre of summer-warmed water traps nutrients and plankton, bringing basking sharks to the Isle of Man and leatherback turtles to track jellyfish into the rocky bays of Wales. Porpoises and dolphins dodge the multiplying craft of recreational sailors.
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In comparing the conservation of key species, the Republic’s long neglect of sea wildlife is clear. The recent inclusion of the basking shark in the Wildlife Act is an exception, like protection of porpoises and common seals. Among the six governments, Northern Ireland protects a whole series of sea species that the Republic’s Wildlife Act ignores, such as the leatherback turtle, sea bass, angel shark, common skate, tall sea pen and native oyster.
The Republic could argue that many key species are in protected habitats, such as the angel sharks of Tralee Bay or the Shannon’s bottlenose dolphins. But the effectiveness of these EU Natura sites is challenged in a report from the Irish Wildlife Trust. It notes that the EU has taken Ireland to court over habitat neglect, not least in the decision of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to overlook 15 per cent of damage. Many Natura marine protection sites lack specific conservation objectives and allow harmful fisheries, aquaculture and dredging.
Another of the review’s case studies considers “Ireland and the misalignment of development and management plans”. Based on an expert study commissioned by Swan, it notes the publication of Ireland’s first Maritime Spatial Plan in 2021, excluding any provision for Marine Protected Areas (MPA). Specific legislation for designation of Ireland’s MPAs is expected in 2023, but their absence from a spatial plan leaves the sea open to industrial offshore development.
In his evaluation for Swan, Dr Cormac Walsh points to “a serious risk that a private sector, development-led rather than plan-led approach will take hold”.
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A dozen wind farms with 666 turbines already operate in the Irish Sea, and the Republic has committed to 5 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind by 2030, generated by about 10 new farms. Wind Energy Ireland thinks that planning permission for the first phase of turbines, off the coasts of Louth, Dublin, Wicklow and Arklow, and at the Sceirde Rocks off Co Galway, may be sought early next year. In an early gesture, an environmental “scoping” by the Dublin Array wind project put roseate terns that nest on Rockabill among “key species to be considered”.
The ISN review takes a measured view of turbines, trusting in “the right technology in the right location”. The habitat damage and loss, it suggests, may be balanced by the farms creating new reef habitats in sandy areas, attracting a greater density of crabs and lobsters.
The new NGO alliance and its online review is a major resource for conservation. It is matched by Fair Seas, the Irish NGO network which made its own assessment of where MPAs should go. Ireland aims to protect 30 per cent of its waters by 2030.
Spatial planning that rests with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, rather than a separate marine agency, is typical of fragmentation in Ireland’s vision of the sea. The department did, however, commission an advisory report on the huge volume of public responses to the proposed expansion of MPAs. Nearly all of the 2,311 submissions were strongly supportive and often ambitious. There will be many keen eyes on its progress into law.