Protection for Marine Species
The main instruments for protecting wildlife in Ireland are the European Birds and Habitats Directives. They protect certain species or habitats that are threatened at a Europe-wide level and in the marine environment this includes whales, dolphins, seals and habitats such as cold water reefs and intertidal estuaries. The Wildlife Act of 1976 (as amended in 2000) lists species for protection at a national level and includes species such as the badger and stoat as well as comprehensively protecting birds. There are no other marine species listed on this Act. While much work has been done in recent years by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in drawing up ‘red lists’ of threatened species this has focussed entirely on terrestrial or freshwater groups such as dragonflies, butterflies, freshwater molluscs etc. Marine fish and invertebrates do not feature.
Meanwhile the Irish Government has recently launched ‘Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth’ to increase the level of economic activity that is derived from the ocean (see www.ouroceanwealth.ie ). While this plan recognises that we have a ‘rich and diverse marine ecosystem’ this assertion is largely based on an absence of information on the distribution and/or conservation status of biodiversity in our oceans. The IWT, through a submission during the consultation stage of the plan with other environmental groups, expressed its concerns that economic goals will be pursued in an unsustainable manner because of this lack of information. In particular we highlighted the lack of basic protection for marine species that may be rare and/or threatened, as well as the lack of any assessments of the conservation status of marine species (other than birds, mammals and the leatherback turtle).
In the UK by contrast 65 species of marine organism, other than mammals, have been listed for priority action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (schedule 5). This list includes algae, sea fans, anemones and fish such as sea-horses, rays, cod and sharks. It includes the second largest fish in the sea, the basking shark, which is not protected in Ireland despite intense commercial exploitation up to the 1980’s (although it is illegal to land a basking shark).
The IWT will soon be working on a project to compile a list of marine wildlife that we believe should be protected under the Wildlife Act.