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Marine Protected Areas – a low-down

4 February 2021 

Last week, the Department of Housing published a report on expanding our Marine Protected Area (MPA) network here in Ireland. 

Which, naturally, got us thinking about them, and we wanted to find out more. What does the picture look like for MPAs right now? Why are they important, and what does the development of offshore wind mean for them? 

We spoke to two experts in the field to find out – Fintan Kelly, a Policy Officer at BirdWatch Ireland and Regina Classen, a Project Officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust working on MPAs. 

Back to basics first – what is an MPA? 

Marine Protected Areas are any areas in the marine environment that are designated for the protection of biodiversity conservation or restoration. 

They’re a bit like protected terrestrial areas, such as national parks. But, it’s important to note that the actual practical protection of areas can vary depending on how strong the designating legislation is. 

The levels of protection for MPAs are varied, according to Fintan Kelly, because the legal framework setting them aside isn’t as stringent as sites designated under the EU’s Habitats or Birds Directive. 

The other thing that both Fintan Kelly and Regina Classen pointed out to us is the problem of “paper parks”. These are sites that are designated, but not managed. It exists on the map, but not on the ground. 

Right now, about 2.5 per cent of Irish waters are MPAs. We’ve missed our 2020 target by a considerable amount – we were supposed to have 10 per cent of all our waters designated as MPAs by last year. 

The Programme for Government did make a commitment to achieve this target as soon as possible, and then hit the second target of 30 per cent by the end of the decade if possible. 

And what do MPAs do exactly? 

Short answer: they do a lot for biodiversity, mitigating the climate crisis, and coastal communities. 

But of course, we like to explain things in as much detail as we can – so here’s the long answer. 

Right now, the picture for our marine environment and ecosystems is not good. They’re highly degraded due to a number of pressures.

Overfishing is the biggest culprit here. Globally, industrial fishing’s footprint is a full four times that of agriculture, covering 55 per cent of the ocean. 

In the North Atlantic, 32 of our fish stocks remain outside safe biological limits, with a staggering 38 per cent of our fish stocks being overfished

Overfishing has wreaked havoc on fish, and in doing so, has altered the balance of marine ecosystems. 

Whales, dolphins and sea birds depend on fish for their diet, and by depleting fish stocks, we’ve seriously cut into their food source. 

So by creating protected spaces, marine ecosystems have the chance to recover and restore their fish populations. 

And when it comes to the climate crisis, the ocean is a massive carbon sink. 

Parts of the deep ocean are in fact the largest reservoir of stored carbon on earth. If that wasn’t enough for you, get ready for this: these zones store more than 50 times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. 

And the creatures in the ocean move carbon themselves, making them key players in sequestering it. 

By just going about their daily business, anything as small as krill and as big as a whale transport carbon and nutrients between surface water and the deep ocean. 

You also have shoals of fish sequester biomass and their habitats, like kelp forests, store carbon, too. 

Extinction Rebellion protest on overfishing December 2019 Photo: Kayle Crosson

So we’ve got this incredibly complex environment that’s been radically disrupted through the pressure we’ve put on it. 

To use another metaphor, if we’re looking at a tapestry, all these different threads have been removed and what we’re left with is weak, brittle and degraded. 

But MPAs are, “one tool to help us put that web of life back together,” Fintan Kelly told us. 

And they also have societal benefits for coastal communities.

By protecting and restoring marine habitats, fish stocks could replenish and local fishers would benefit immensely from it. 

The other obvious benefit, according to Regina Classen, is tourism. 

Seagrass and kelp that we have close to our shores are beautiful snorkeling grounds and could help bolster local coastal communities.  

Okay, that’s incredibly cool. 

It is. 

But, the Irish Wildlife Trust warned last week that offshore wind and wave energy projects were being prioritised above international commitments to MPAs. 

While environmental groups support developing offshore renewables, they stress it has to be planned, built and managed in a sustainable way. 

It needs to take account of the climate crisis, as well as the biodiversity crisis. 

Ideally you’d want to be designating MPAs first and then building offshore wind farms, Regina Classen told The Green News, so that way the most vulnerable marine sites are protected. 

And Fintan Kelly highlighted that by investing in the science now to manage MPAs appropriately, you also then have a massive body of evidence that a developer could piggyback off of. 

“So that would also be beneficial for the industry,” he said. 

A big thank you to Fintan Kelly and Regina Classen for talking us through this all. We’ll be keeping our eye on all things MPA and marine-related, so make sure to check in with us for any developments. 

About the Author

Kayle Crosson