Marine Protected Areas for Irish Waters

Following the publication of the comprehensive report of an Advisory Group on the Expansion of Ireland’s Marine Protected Area Network (MPA) in January, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has opened a public consultation on the planning of MPAs. The consultation takes the form of an online survey with a series of questions, many of ask for detailed, open responses and assume knowledge of the content of the individual chapters of the Advisory Report. I completed my submission this morning. In what follows, I summarise my key recommendations and outline what I view as priorities re. MPA planning and management.

The Irish Government’s commitments, in line with the EU Biodiversity Strategy to designate 30% of its maritime area as marine protected areas by 2030 and the current review of the National Parks and Wildlife Services taken together, present opportunities for new thinking, drawing on international good practice in protected area management. In particular, there are opportunities to protect Ireland’s vulnerable coastal ecosystems in a systematic and effective manner through new national park designations and other forms of protected area such as biosphere reserves. The MPA Advisory Group Report is a very welcome contribution to the future planning of MPAs in Ireland and implementation of this agenda. The report, prepared by a multi-disciplinary team is comprehensive in its scope and sets out relevant ecological, socio-economic, governance and regulatory considerations pertaining to MPA planning and implementation in the Irish context. The report proposes a definition of MPAs and recommends key principles for their designation and management.

The establishment and management of protected areas, requires sensitivity to the needs and values of coastal and island communities, inshore fisheries and sustainable tourism stakeholders. Experience across Europe with a ‘new generation’ of national parks and protected areas suggests the need for an integration of an integrated approach to the protection of both natural and cultural heritage at the coat, an approach which acknowledges and recognises the value of traditional, local knowledge as well as scientific expertise and fosters community participation and stewardship rather than setting protected areas apart from society. The emergence of this approach is based on a recognition that the success of protected areas is dependent on active engagement and participation of local stakeholders in park management.

In my consultation submission, I make the following points, concerning the planning and governance of MPAs:

Vision for MPAs

  • Marine Protected Areas should protect vulnerable and valuable marine ecosystems and natural areas. They should include extensive areas located ‘beyond the horizon’ as well as coastal areas where consideration should be given to the inclusion of both coastal waters and land areas within MPA boundaries.
  • MPAs should adopt a holistic approach to protecting both the natural and cultural heritage of marine areas. This is referred to in the MPA Advisory Group report as a bio-cultural diversity approach. It implies recognising all sea areas as ‘peopled seascapes’ imbued with socio-cultural values.
  • MPAs should explicitly recognise the dynamic nature of the marine environment and take due account of interrelationships between MPAs and non-MPA areas and changes over time as natural ecosystems adopt to a changing climate.
  • Serious consideration needs to be given to the development of eco-tourism in relation to MPAs incl. for example both guided boat tours and interpretative centres on the coast.
  • MPAs must be strictly implemented and regulated but do not necessarily have to mean a ban on all fishing activity. Where practicable and relevant, the potential for inclusion of sustainable small-scale fisheries should be actively considered.

Types of MPAs – Marine / Coastal National Parks

  • Ireland’s network of MPAs should also include National Parks located in coastal waters. National Parks may be considered flagship protected areas. This does not necessarily imply stricter regulations but that they should showcase the value of Ireland’s marine environment and act as best practice models for sustainable management of resources, natural ecosystems and cultural heritage at the regional scale.
  • Marine national parks should have a high degree of involvement of coastal (and island) communities in their management structures.

MPA Planning and Management

  • The task of implementing MPAs should not be underestimated. The designation of individual MPAs should not be rushed and should be preceded by a pilot phase devoted to extensive and substantive open consultation with local communities and stakeholders. This process should include open, informed discussion and debate on the types and Categories of MPA to be implemented (i.e. IUCN categories). 
  • The outcome of the these pilots should not be pre-determined. Some proposed MPAs may not be designated if it is not possible to reach agreement among local communities and impacted sectoral stakeholders. These pilots should be embedded within processes of regional-scale Marine spatial planning which provide the context and broader policy frameworks.
  • Governance structures should be established to ensure buy-in from local communities (e.g. formal role for local authorities) to alleviate concerns that MPAs are implemented top-down from Dublin.
  • The implementation of MPAs will face challenges due to the poor experience with land-based protected areas in Ireland (e.g. National Parks failing to match expectations, missing / not publicly available management plans, debacle concerning rhododendron clearance in Killarney National Park). 
  • The implementation of MPAs will require substantial resource investment in terms of both capital investment and staffing across multiple organisations. MPAs will live from a network governance, partnership approach with involvement from public bodies, civil society and private sector actors as well as universities and research institutes.

There is much that can be learned from good practice in protected area management internationally. My submission draws on my research on protected area management at the Wadden Sea coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, over the period 2016-2020 (a project funded by the German Research Foundation), as well as knowledge of the international literatures on protected area management and marine governance. I also worked as volunteer and group leader with Groundwork on summer workcamps in Killarney National Park between 2002 and 2006.

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