More than Lines on a Map? Towards Regional Governance for Irish Marine Space

Last month, I spoke at the Conference of Irish Geographers about the current developments and future challenges in marine protected area (MPA) management and maritime spatial planning (MSP) in the Irish context. In this commentary, I further develop some of the key arguments and proposals from that presentation.

As an island nation, Ireland is surrounded by the sea and has an extensive maritime territory (Figure 1 below). Nevertheless, the sea has often occupied a peripheral position in the national consciousness and politics. There is a prevailing sense that successive Irish governments have ‘turned their backs on the sea’, neglecting this rich resource (e.g. Tom MacSweeney 2008, Kevin O’ Sullivan 2019). Currently, however, Ireland’s marine territory is subject to significant policy attention, indicating perhaps, the beginning of a new relationship between the land and the sea. Irish marine governance is evolving rapidly with the adoption of a National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF), the preparation of a Marine Planning and Development Management Bill, and ambitious targets for the large-scale expansion of Ireland’s MPA network, in line with international commitments. Yet, blind spots and a sense of disjointed policy-making continues with, for example, the lack of marine biodiversity characterization or sensitivity mapping to support the preparation of NMPF. Indeed, by all accounts (the final NMPF will not be made public until June 17th), the NMPF does not provide a map of spatial strategy or an indication of priority areas for specific uses and activities at sea. In this sense, it is very much a policy framework rather than a spatial plan and barely meets the requirements set out under EU MSP Directive. This apparent lack of willingness to provide strategic policy direction in relation to the spatial distribution of activities and priority areas for ecosystem protection at sea is disappointing. As pressures for the development of marine space increase, there is a real risk of a reactive, development-led regime emerging by default. 

Figure 1: Ireland’s maritime territory (continental shelf). Source: Marine Institute.

The Irish Government has committed to protecting 30% of its marine area by 2030, a dramatic, approximately 15-fold expansion in a space of less than 10 years. This 30% target is aligned with the EU Biodiversity Strategy and recommendations of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Ireland’s marine territory is approximately ten times larger than its land area. Reaching 30% protection will thus require the designation of a total area three times the size of Ireland’s land area as MPAs. Currently designated protected areas are for the most part located close to shore (see figure 2 below). Ireland’s MPA network may, in the future, include inshore, offshore, and what might be termed far offshore areas (located upwards of approximately 150 nautical miles from the coast). The Programme for Government indicates that an offshore marine National Park might be established as one element of an expanded MPA network:

“We will examine the establishment of an offshore maritime area as Ireland’s seventh national park. This would form part of the expanded MPAs and allow for a learning experience in the maritime environment”

To date, this is the only indication of the potential spatial structure or composition of the proposed MPA network.

Figure 2: Currently designated Marine Special Areas of Conservation. Source: MPA Advisory Group Report.

The management of inshore, offshore, and far offshore MPAs will present different sets of challenges. The effective management of offshore and far offshore MPAs will require substantial investment in monitoring, research, and policing. This will require liaison with, for the most part, a relatively group of stakeholders. Inshore protected areas, on the other hand, will, in addition, require community engagement and participation at planning, designation, and management stages to ensure legitimacy and buy-in from coastal communities.  Indeed, there are many examples of international good practice in community-based management of coastal and marine protected areas which Ireland can learn from. It is critically important that MPAs became more than just lines on the map, that they provide effective protection for marine ecosystems. The designation and management of MPAs require considered attention to existing commercial and recreational uses of Ireland’s marine space and sensitivity to the values associated with both material and immaterial maritime cultural heritage. Indeed, the MPA Advisory Group report suggests the development of a marine stewardship approach, explicitly linking natural and cultural heritage protection.

It is evident that MPA management requires a place-based approach supported by robust and strategic marine spatial plans. Both MSP and MPA management cannot be developed and implemented by central government alone. If they are, there is a risk that marine protected areas do not become more than lines on the map. I propose a regional governance framework for moving forward with MSP and MPA expansion. One possible regional governance arrangement could involve the extension of the Regional Assembly boundaries into the marine space, as illustrated in Figure 3 below. Under this approach, the Northern & Western Regional Assembly would take lead responsibility for the development of both a regional-scale marine spatial plan and the development of an MPA network in a Northwest Atlantic maritime region, working closely with local authorities within the region and relevant public sector bodies at national level. Similarly, the Southern Regional Assembly would assume lead responsibility for MSP and MPA expansion Celtic Sea Maritime Region and the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly for the Irish Sea Maritime Region. An island of Ireland approach to MSP and MPA management will furthermore require extensive transboundary cooperation and coordination with the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland.

Figure 3: Illustrative map of proposed regional governance arrangements for Ireland’s marine space (produced by the author).

A regional governance approach of this nature has the potential to strike the right balance between local ownership, democratic legitimacy and strategic oversight. It would build on the experience and expertise of the regional assemblies in accessing relevant EU territorial cooperation funding and support the development of integrated approaches, taking account of land-sea interactions and the particular policy and management requirements of the coastal zone. Importantly, it would allow for a coordinated approach to the development and implementation of subnational marine spatial plans and the designation and management of an expanded MPA network.

The introduction of marine policy regions in Scotland has allowed for a greater degree of flexibility and adaptation to local circumstances than would otherwise be possible with more centralised arrangements. This aspect of experimentation in regional governance structures is recognised as a positive characteristic of the Scottish approach to MSP. Within this proposed framework, there is, however, potential for the development of structures for community-based stewardship at the local scale, focussed in particular on issues specifically relevant to the inshore context. Here there is potential to learn from international experience, such as the work of coastal forums in the UK. It is imperative that participation and consultation is not limited to the designation and planning stages but is integral to the management of MPAs.

Public participation and community ownership are, perhaps, less relevant for far-offshore areas such as the Porcupine Bank and Seabight and the Rockall Trough. It is possible, however, that a large-scale MPA in the form of a national park (or series of MPAs) might be appropriate for these less accessible marine areas. Here, ecosystem-based management informed by scientific monitoring and expertise is likely to be the preferred management option, combined with an educational interpretative centre at an Atlantic coastal location. Management of far-offshore MPAs may remain the responsibility of central government, with the Marine Institute potentially taking on a lead role in conjunction with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

The proposed governance arrangements outlined above would require substantial investment, legislative underpinning, and long-term commitment from central government and relevant public sector agencies. They have the potential to realise the expansion of Ireland’s MPA network in line with international commitments, protecting and promoting awareness of the rich biodiversity of and cultural heritage of Irish marine space, in a manner that is sensitive to other uses and activities at sea and the values and perspectives of coastal communities.

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