Seanad passes motion calling on State to protect half of Ireland’s marine life

May 24th, 2018

The Seanad has passed a motion calling for the Government to protect half of Ireland’s seas and ocean with community-driven Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

The motion calls on the government to publish an Oceans Bill to meet its European and International obligations and protect 50 per cent our coasts and seas through marine protection.

MPAs are any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its associated flora, fauna and cultural features, which is protected by law. They include marine reserves, fully protected marine areas, and marine parks.

The motion, brought by Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan, was voted through yesterday evening with the support of all parties except for Fine Gael.

Ireland has an international target of protecting 10 per cent of waters by 2020 and 30 per cent by 2030. Currently, just over two per cent of Irish waters are protected, the second lowest percentage in Europe.

The vast majority of this is for estuarine and coastal waters, with little to no protection of Irish deep-sea waters to date despite possessing a marine territory 10 times our land mass.

Abundance of ocean wealth

Speaking on the Seanad floor yesterday evening, Ms O’Sullivan said that we have an increased responsibility to protect the marine environment due to this “abundance of ocean wealth”.

She stressed the need for State action now to tackle issues facing Ireland such as a high number of endangered marine species, disturbances from seismic testing to cetaceans, krill and phytoplankton, and the depletion of almost one-fifth of Ireland’s commercial fishing species.

These issues, she said, must be dealt with alongside global pressures on the marine environment such as marine dead-zones,  climate change, mass extinction of species and plastic pollution.

The motion also calls for a “moratorium” on the granting of any new deep sea mining licenses and fossil fuel exploration in protected waters, as well as a ban on seismic testing within range of protected areas that would have any “deleterious effects” on marine life.

There are currently only 6 MPAs to protect coral reefs on the seabed, four of which are in the Porcupine Seabight deep-water basin.

Yet, this area is one of the most extensively licensed frontier fossil fuel exploration areas in Europe, Ms O’Sullivan said, with heavy seismic testing conducted over the past five years.

dolphin plastic bag at fernando de noronha Photo: Jedimentat44
Dolphin with a plastic bag caught on its flipper Photo: Jedimentat44

Government Counter-Motion

A counter-motion from Minister of State for Housing and Urban Development Damian English, TD was voted down.

Several Senators outlined their concern that it would dilute Ms O’Sullivan’s motion and further delayed Ireland’s chances of hitting its EU targets.

Paul Daly of Fianna Fail said that his party was supporting the motion as politicians have a “moral” and “economic” obligation to protect and enhance Irish waters.

“The government must act on this motion as a matter of environmental urgency,” Mr Daly said. He added that every day the creation of new MPAs is delayed is a “detriment to our natural environment”.

The counter-motion was brought, according to Mr English, to ensure that “robust scientific assessment” is carried out to determine the percentage of Irish waters that should be protected.

Mr English said that it would be wrong for the Green Party’s motion to “unilaterally” push through something of this “magnitude” for an area five times Ireland’s landmass.

He added that the 50 per cent plan can’t just be a “number on paper” and that the Government’s counter-motion would have allowed time for the State to determine how to “manage” and “enforce” new MPAs.

He said that the government supports the development of a “diverse but coherent network” of MPA and has committed to introducing legislation to provide for them.

Minister of State for Housing and Urban Development, Damien English, TD on the flood of the Seanad yesterday evening Photo: Oireachtas TV

Can Kicking Exercise

Ms O’Sullivan said, however, that the government’s proposed amendments would have taken “almost every element of strength and innovation” from her motion.

The counter-motion, she said, was an exercise in “kicking the can down the road” and would lead to a process that will take “nine months to get a report” followed by months of further debate before the Dail.

Despite Mr English’s assurances that the long-awaited microbeads ban will be announced by the end of the summer, Ms O’Sullivan said that the State has a poor record to date on marine issues.

“Yesterday was International Day for Biological Diversity. However, Ireland has not much to celebrate, considering our poor performance to date in the area of marine protection,” she said.

“Ocean habitats have flourished for millions of years without human help, and they can do so again if we will just allow their natural resilience to restore them.”

Stakeholder Consultation

Fine Gael Senator Paudie Coffey said that the Green’s motion does not allow for “critical” consultation with stakeholders on plans on such a large area.

Mr Coffey also said that the motion would require Ireland to mark “unilateral” changes to the fisheries quota system as opposed to consultation with other EU states as is the norm.

The motion’s co-signatory, Independent Senator Francie Black, pointed out that the motion clearly calls for consultation with all key stakeholders from the fisheries, recreational fisheries, tourism, energy, conservation and other relevant sectors.

She added that the motion only asks the Government to reconsider its current quotas levels to ensure that they are fairer to protect Irish fishermen against both Irish and internationally registered super trawlers.

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