Our marine habitats are in bad shape. But there’s a solution.

18 June 2021

The decline of coastal habitats is set to continue unless the state takes significant action, a number of campaigners have warned.

Current Government inaction on marine eco-systems is “quite shameful” according to Campaign Officer for the Irish Wildlife Trust, Padraic Fogarty.

While some communities are ready and willing to do the work that needs to be done, the perpetuated lack of action from the state will ensure that nothing will change when it comes to the state of our marine environment, he told The Green News.

According to the EPA, 65 per cent of Ireland’s coastal habitats are in an unfavourable condition, which poses a significant risk to marine eco-systems and biodiversity.

The consistent underfunding of marine areas is a significant reason for the decline of coastal habitats, according to Policy Officer for Birdwatch Ireland Fintan Kelly.

Issues in implementing the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund, which is the financial mechanism to fund fisheries, aquaculture, and marine conservation management, has had a driving effect on the decline.

“The marine conservation side [of the fund] has been badly neglected for a long time, and this is something that we were raising with the Department and the Commission. Ireland has significant legal obligations to protect biodiversity, and we’ve missed deadlines,” he told The Green News.

One such missed deadline was the goal to have 10 per cent of Ireland’s marine territory designated as a marine protected area by 2020. As it currently stands, only 2 per cent of its waters have the classification.

With coastal areas being exposed to a greater range of pressures than offshore areas, marine protected areas can be used to protect coastal eco-systems and recover declining species populations.

The threat of commercial fishing

Commercial fisheries place the biggest pressure on Irish biodiversity. To date, approximately 500 active fishing vessels are active in the waters of the Ireland Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which spend 1.8 million hours fishing per year.

Aside from the direct impacts of commercial fishing, such as the capturing and killing of marine wildlife, indirect impacts like the bycatching of non-targeted fish species place a significant risk on the marine ecosystem, according to Mr. Kelly.

Bycatching occurs when fishing nets catch species that are different than the ones being targeted by the fisher. While this mostly affects fish, other marine wildlife such as seabirds, seals, cetaceans, and marine turtles have been accidentally caught due to bycatching.

The fishing down of the marine food web is one of the more pervasive impacts of industrial fishing, as valuable commercial fish such as tuna and cod are fished “to near collapse,” impacting fundamentally on the functioning of the marine ecosystem, Mr. Kelly said.

The other major effect of industrial fishing is the physical impact it has on habitats.

Activities such as bottom-trawling, where fishing nets are dragged across the seafloor, can be potentially devastating to juvenile nursing and spawning grounds for marine wildlife.

According to a 2019 report by the Marine Institute of Ireland, much of the Irish seabed is trawled at least once per year, with some regions being trawled more than 10 times a year.

Extinction Rebellion protest on overfishing December 2019 Photo: Kayle Crosson

How we can turn the tide

In terms of potential fixes for the decline of coastal habitats, Mr. Kelly points to innovations in fishing gear that could lead to a reduction in the impact of commercial fishing on marine eco-systems.

“So, the idea is that if you use fishing gear that allows a certain species of bycatch fish to escape the nets, it allows the juvenile fish to escape, then you’re catching less of those fish in the first place,” he explained.

Technological innovation could also lead to improved policing of commercial fisheries. Tools like CCTV, as well as other forms of electronic monitoring such as satellite tracking, create more possibilities for improvement.

It is also thought that by rewilding key marine and coastal eco-systems, 1.83 billion tonnes of carbon would be mitigated each year, according to Policy Officer at SWAN Ireland, Ellen MacMahon.

“The carbon that is captured by coastal and marine eco-systems is known as ‘blue carbon’.

“A report published a few weeks ago stated that globally, the rewilding of key blue carbon marine and coastal eco-systems such as seagrasses and seabed habitats could deliver carbon dioxide mitigation amounting to approximately 5 per cent of the emissions savings we need to make globally,” she told The Green News.

The EU Biodiversity Strategies target for Ireland is to have 30 per cent of marine territories protected by 2030, with 10 per cent being highly protected areas. MacMahon notes that there is still critical work to be done.

“We urgently need to expand our existing network of coastal and marine protected sites and ensure that they are effectively managed and robustly enforced in order to turn the tide for our seas,” she said.

Story by Thomas Hamilton