Marine Protected Areas

As the world becomes more sensitive to the impact humans have on the environment, governments across the globe are setting aside areas of habitat to allow nature to thrive unaffected by human influence.

One such habitat is the ocean which has been impacted by overfishing, trawling, pollution, deep-sea mining and much more. A well-known fact is that we know more about the moon than our own ocean, so we are not fully aware of how our impact is affecting marine ecosystems. However, as technology improves, scientists are better able to understand the processes which affect marine habitats to reverse the harmful processes contributing to their destruction through better practices in these areas.

Areas of interest to expand Ireland’s MPA’s from 8% to 30% by 2030 under Government plans

Marine Protected Areas or MPA’s are a popular way to combat the effects of overfishing, trawling and deep-sea mining. These are sections of the marine environment set aside to remain untouched by human influences. 

Many of these areas have boundaries set by governments in which sanctions are imposed on fishing ships that enter these zones. Some areas do not allow any kind of human activity to occur within the boundary – these are known as No Entry MPA’s. 

In total, there are over 5,000 MPA’s established across the world which represents 0.8% of the total ocean. There are many kinds of MPA’s with some found in the open ocean and others along coastlines with high marine biodiversity. Although the principle is to protect marine ecosystems and prevent biodiversity loss, it can be hard to police these regions of the ocean and often human activity occurs in these zones.

Ireland’s expansive continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean promotes the island’s vast array of marine biodiversity. The shelf has a lower depth than the Atlantic and can receive more sunlight which provides a habitat for many phytoplankton and zooplankton which are in turn predated by larger fish. 

Marine species such as the Harbour Seal, Harbour Porpoise and Bottlenose Dolphin are all protected by the EU Habitats Directive which was established in 1992 to protect native species. 

Ireland has 4 species of seagrass located around its shores which provide a wide range of services to both the marine and terrestrial ecosystem, such as nurseries for juvenile fish, migration corridors, carbon sequestration and coastal protection from tidal surges. 

Seagrass is protected by the Habitats Directive, but its habitat range is currently in decline across Ireland due to human activities, particularly the use of bottom trawl nets by trawlers which scrape the seafloor when fishing for species found at the bottom of the ocean. 

The continual human activities (trawling, pollution and overharvesting) damage habitats and negatively impact marine populations by reducing fish densities. MPA’s protect areas of the ocean to prevent the impact of human activities on marine ecosystems by reducing or banning such practices within these zones.

Seagrass such as Zostera marina provide a range of ecosystem services to the marine environment such as habitats, nurseries for juvenile fish and carbon sequestration.

Ireland has 7 MPA’s located around Irish waters with many more found inland or surrounding smaller islands on the coast. It has recently been announced by the Government that plans are being put in place to protect 30% of Irish waters by 2030. 

Currently Irish MPA’s cover just 2.3% of coastal waters and with the approval of the General Scheme of the Marine Protected Areas Bill in December 2022, the aim is to increase the area of MPAs for biodiversity and protection of our marine wildlife. 

The Bill outlines the designation, management, and identification of MPA sites in Irish waters and works alongside previous legislation such as the EU Habitats Directive, EU Common Fisheries Policy and the Marine Framework Directive to ensure that marine ecosystems are supported and protected.

In the coming years, Ireland’s waters are set to become more protected under this legislation as the Government puts further emphasis on Ireland’s marine ecosystems and promotes the conservation of the wildlife found on our doorstep.

What Can I Do?

One of the best ways to help our wildlife is to protect their habitat. You can do this by supporting our work to care for all wildlife and its habitats.