Under the general scheme of the Marine Protected Areas Bill, 30 per cent of Ireland’s maritime area will be protected which will impact upon the development of offshore wind industry and help the State to comply with European guidelines.
The Marine Protected Areas Bill, of which the general scheme was agreed by government in December 2022, will triple the previous target for the area of Irish waters and seafloor allocated for conservation, with a 30 per cent by 2030 target outlined. If achieved, the 30 per cent of maritime area target would represent the conservation of an area twice the size of the State’s landmass. The previous target, 10 per cent, is now said to be “on track” for mid-2023. The Bill, published in time for the UN’s Biodiversity Conference COP15, aims to engineer a step change in Irish marine protection, which stood at just 2.3 per cent of the overall area in 2020, and stood at 8.3 per cent as of December 2022.
The Bill has been “designed to deliver a modern framework for designating and effectively managing protected areas in our seas and ocean, one that can help to address the current biodiversity and climate crises”. A comprehensive expert group report on marine protected areas was published in 2021, which considered stakeholder and public participation and consultation. The scientific, technical, and participatory approaches set out in the Bill are “intended to ensure that practical and effective area-based conservation action and management measures will be taken to protect our highly valued marine biodiversity and other ecosystem features”.
The reforms and protections outlined within the Bill will see Ireland fall in line with the biodiversity protection regime implemented by the European Union under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which is the first EU legislation related to the protection of marine biodiversity sets out a vision for the EU’s marine protection to be “one of the most comprehensive and ambitious [protection schemes] worldwide”. Two Special Areas of Conservation have also been designated under the EU Habitats Directive off the north-west and south coasts, totaling three million hectares. Both areas were selected due to their deep-water reef habitats that support wide ranges of marine species.
It has been reported that one challenge during formulation of the Bill was determining how marine protected areas might affect the development of Ireland’s offshore wind industry, with significant development to take place between now and 2030 as the Government strives to achieve its 7GW target. However, both Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan TD and Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien TD have stated that marine protected areas would in fact support the development. “This milestone in bringing marine protected areas legislation forward supports the achievement of this government’s ambitions for the protection of our precious marine environment, while ensuring the sustainable use of its resources including supporting Ireland’s offshore renewable energy ambitions,” O’Brien stated.