MPA Advisory Group unveils results of public consultation on ‘Expanding Ireland’s Marine Protected Areas Network’
On 31 March 2022, the Marine Protection Area Advisory Group published a detailed analysis summarizing the results of their public consultation on Ireland’s network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The public consultation started on February 17, 2021 and continued until July 30, 2021 inclusive. The consultation took place as part of the government’s initiative to protect the marine environment through the designation of marine protected areas.
In December 2019, the Minister for Housing, Regional Planning and Local Government established an independent expert group, the Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Advisory Group, to provide independent and expert advice on the how to support the expansion of a coherent network of marine protected areas. Areas, in line with Ireland’s commitments under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and the EU Biodiversity Strategy. The MPA Group conducted extensive dialogue with stakeholders and produced a report titled Extension of Ireland’s Marine Protected Area Networkwhich served as support for this public consultation.
In this report, the MAP advisory group noted that a very small part of the marine environment is currently under protection, with only 10,420 km² or 2.13% of the total maritime area of the Ireland covered by the Natura 2000 network of Special Sea Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Habitats and Birds Directives. There is an absence of national legislation supporting the implementation of MPAs beyond 12 nautical miles. The Wildlife Act is limited in its application to the foreshore, which roughly corresponds to the limits of the territorial sea. The protection of sensitive habitats and species beyond 12 nautical miles is therefore limited to measures taken within the framework of Community law (in particular the MSFD, the Birds and Habitats Directives) or the OSPAR Convention. Overall, the Advisory Group found that “Ireland’s network of protected areas cannot be considered cohesive, representative, connected or resilient or as meeting Ireland’s international commitments and legal obligations”. However, the Panel also recognized that other environmental protection mechanisms are in place and that offshore developments requiring Marine Area Consent (MAC) under the new marine governance regime will require an EIA and/or or an appropriate assessment before being able to obtain planning permission from the Council. (Semple M. Maritime Spatial Planning Bill 2021Bill Digest).
The MAPA was enacted on December 23, 2021 and the relevant provisions governing the granting of MACs entered into force shortly thereafter, on March 10, 2022. The law does not deal with AMPs, which will be the subject of a separate legislative text. . Prior to the MAPA’s enactment, concerns were raised that development permission could be granted in environmentally sensitive areas that may be designated as MPAs in the future (see: Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and heritage, 2021. Pre-legislative examination report of the general outline of the maritime development planning and management bill). Despite Ireland’s commitment to designate 30% of its marine area as MPAs by 2030, the development of MPA legislation lags behind the enactment of the MAPA. Several offshore wind farms qualify as special MAC cases and will soon come under the new MAC regime. In due course, some or all of these proposed developments will seek development approval. It is therefore of concern that further delays in establishing a system of designated MPAs may lead to missed opportunities to consider MPAs in the context of these applications.
Of course, the protection granted to SACs and SPAs is not strictly limited to the boundaries of these designated sites. For example, in the context of SPA birds, Article 4(4) of the Birds Directive expressly extends protections to other ex situ habitats used by these birds. Article 5(d) of the Birds Directive expressly prohibits the deliberate and significant disturbance of all wild birds, including SPA birds, in particular during their most vulnerable breeding and rearing periods, and the article 12 of the Habitats Directive expressly prohibits the deliberate disturbance of marine mammals, in particular (but not exclusively) during periods of reproduction and rearing or migration, and also prohibits the deterioration or destruction of their breeding or resting sites . These protections are subject to limited exceptions and apply throughout the jurisdiction, not just in designated areas. Therefore, even within the existing legislative regime, it will be possible to ensure that the potential impact of projects on these species and their habitats will be analyzed and assessed in accordance with the Habitats and Birds Directives.
The public consultation was spread over more than five months and concluded with a Independent analysis and report on public consultation submissions on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). A total of 2,300 submissions were received and showed strong public acceptance of marine protected areas. Over 99% of submissions received by the MPA Advisory Group supported the expansion of the Irish MPA network. The need for strong scientific support and early stakeholder engagement with fishers and coastal communities was seen as critical to the MPA expansion process. In essence, it was found that:
- the program target for the government to protect 30% of Irish waters by 2030 as part of the MPA network was supported; whereas the current level of protection (at approximately 2%) was not considered sufficient;
- 93% of respondents support the inclusion of existing conservation sites in the national network of MPAs;
- 91% support the key principles of the ongoing MPA process;
- respondents noted gaps in information and data as well as gaps in marine protection education;
- Respondents called for urgent, evidence-based action, and increased research and resources, to protect our marine life and the economic and societal benefits that come from a marine environment diverse and productive.
The findings of the consultation will inform the development of national legislation to enable the identification and management of MPAs. Work to develop a general outline of legislation on MPAs is currently underway within the Ministry of Housing, Local Authorities and Heritage and should continue until 2022.