Ladies and gentlemen.
It is my very great pleasure to be invited here today to open this workshop and I am very pleased to see the range of excellent contributions we can look forward to today on the value and delivery of marine protected areas. Events like this provide a great opportunity to build networks and share experiences and I would encourage attendees to actively participate both in the formal sessions and in the margins.
For an island nation with one of the largest maritime areas in the EU, the importance of the sea to Ireland cannot be overstated. Having grown up beside the sea and having pursued various maritime activities, I have a great appreciation for the sea and its value to the economy and, its value socially, culturally and recreationally. The sea is a subject close to my heart and I also am aware of the opportunities and threats facing the marine environment currently and into the future.
In ‘Harvesting our Ocean Wealth’, the Government set out its vision and identified the high-level goals and integrated actions to enable our marine potential to be realised. While recognising the need to develop a thriving maritime economy, the plan also acknowledged the need to protect our marine ecosystems and to ensure compliance with environmental law. Our ocean wealth is a national asset that needs to be sustainably developed but also protected and managed for the benefit or our citizens.
The Marine Strategy Framework Directive, or MSFD, forms the basis of our sustainable interaction with our marine environment. In its third recital it states that:
"The marine environment is a precious heritage that must be protected, preserved and, where practicable, restored with the ultimate aim of protecting biodiversity and providing diverse and dynamic oceans and seas which are clean, healthy and productive"
The purpose of MSFD is to integrate environmental considerations into all aspects of marine policy and activity so that we maintain or reach a point of "Good Environmental Status", or GES, in our seas and oceans and thereafter, that we ensure it is maintained through sustainable use of our seas.
The Directive requires that we assess our marine environment; develop GES targets and indicators; monitor our environment in light of these; and where necessary introduce a programme of measures to address issues affecting GES being achieved.
Key to any successful programme of measures is ensuring that we have a coherent and effective network of marine protected areas and other spatial protection measures across all the EU’s marine regions. This is a requirement of the Directive. 3
This is why I recently committed to introducing enabling legislation to provide for the creation of a diverse but coherent network of marine protected areas with appropriate enforcement measures where they do not already exist in law.
Of course, I recognise that we are not starting from a blank canvas in this regard. There already exists a significant number of protected areas under the Habitats and Birds Directives which are regulated by my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. These include a significant number of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas and I intend to add new types of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to these and, over time, to provide for the designation of an ecologically representative network of marine protected areas.
The Bill I am drafting will allow for the designation of various types of MPAs by Regulation, including their geographical delineation and the provision of the necessary special protection measures required for the MPA in question. These regulations will identify what human activities, if any, need to be managed, limited or allowed in each potential MPA and will identify the time-periods where such restrictions apply.
It is my intention that the Bill will provide for enforcement powers and create penalties for offences under the legislation, where appropriate powers and penalties do not already exist in law.
Enacting enabling legislation is one thing, establishing what types of MPAs we require to ensure that GES is maintained or reached is another. This workshop will go some way to help clarifying issues in this regard.
I also propose to establish shortly, an expert advisory group whose terms of reference will include the development of a process for the identification, designation and recommendation of candidate marine areas which require protection. This will involve the input from among others, specialist experts in Government Departments, state agencies, eNGOs and from academia.
There is little doubt that this process will be challenging and there will be strong and often diverging views and aspirations. However, the creation of a network of MPAs will be welcomed by most and as well as addressing our environmental targets, will help to enhance Ireland’s environmental reputation both nationally and internationally.
The purpose of any area MPA-designated should be to ensure that we are able to reach and maintain our GES targets. Accordingly the group will operate with reference to our formally identified MSFD targets and the EU Commission’s revised GES Criteria which are due to be approved by Council of Ministers this month. However, as MSFD is concerned with sustainable use of our marine environment, social and cultural factors will be a consideration, such as protecting certain sustainable traditional approaches etc. in particular geographic locations. Other determining factors will include Common Fisheries Programme Article 11 commitments. The requirements of the OSPAR Convention and other relevant international Conventions and Treaties will be considered, where their requirements intersect with our MSFD requirements.
Because it will have an impact on a significant number of users of the marine environment, consultation will be required with stakeholders from industry, recreational users, and civil society. As the marine environment is a transboundary one, the views of interested parties from bordering jurisdictions will also be required in certain cases. MSFD specifically requires such transboundary co-operation.
I am conscious that the creation and implementation of marine protected areas, in itself, is not a universal panacea for all the threats affecting marine ecosystems. They are, however, I believe, an extremely important tool that needs to be complemented by other management strategies such as addressing the problems of marine litter, climate change and maintenance of pollution controls.
As you are all probably aware at this stage, my Department is also working on legislation to prohibit the manufacture and sale of certain products containing microbeads, including cosmetics, other body care products detergents and scouring agents where a clear pathway to our riverine and marine environments has been identified.
It should be noted that microbeads only represent a small fraction of the microplastics that are entering our marine environment. Also, due to our small population size, the benefit of an Irish ban on microbeads is limited in its impact. Ireland will, however, continue its position of advocating for a European wide ban and one which is not limited just to personal care products but also to household products, detergents and abrasive products such as scouring agents.
I was delighted with the response to the recent public consultation process relating to microbead prohibition, which is now closed. Over 3,000 contributions were received, which is a tremendous response to a public consultation. This clearly demonstrates that civil society is extremely concerned by marine environmental issues, which I find reassuring. Submissions received will now feed into the forthcoming legislative process and a formal response will be prepared.
In relation to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive in general, I am pleased to inform you that my Department has started preparation for the second cycle of the process. The initial cycle was, to an extent, a learning process and we have gained a lot of knowledge to build on in cycle two. I would like to thank you all for your contribution in progressing our understanding of the relevant issues to date and I look forward to your continued involvement in the second and subsequent phases of the process.
I appreciate that there can be an element of consultation fatigue in relation to these processes, but this is an area where there are many scientific unknowns. Globally, we are still trying to fully comprehend our marine environment and the risks and harm being presented to it. We are also developing how we can best work with stakeholders such as yourselves to address this. This is an evolutionary process.
Your contribution is very important in this regard and it is important that you continue to engage with these processes as they develop.
I would like to express my appreciation to SWAN for organising and running this workshop and I look forward to its deliberations.
I wish to conclude by reiterating my firm support for the establishment and enforcement of a network of connected marine protected areas. These will play a vital role in biodiversity conservation in challenging times. They will also form part of our rich environmental legacy for the generations to come.
We, as current custodians of the marine environment have a duty and a responsibility to pass on a resource to be sustainably developed and enjoyed by our children and their children.
I hope you have a thought-provoking and enlightening workshop and I hope there will be significant information and experience sharing. I look forward to the findings of the workshop and I am confident that it will be a vehicle to progress the development of a network of ecologically representative and connected marine protected areas in Ireland.