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Opinion 'Climate and biodiversity are not election issues' - it's time that changed

It’s important not to forget to advocate for nature, says Dr Donal Griffin of the Fair Seas campaign.

CAMPAIGNING FOR NATURE can be rewarding but also sometimes frustrating job. It can be slow, seem hopeless, and even downright boring at times, especially when you’re bogged down in policy papers and the legal ramifications of each word.

The rationale for protecting nature is summed up in all the wonderful benefits it brings to humans and our livelihoods. Nature provides us with the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. We need to protect it to safeguard our very existence on this planet.

Yet, I’m told that come election time, issues like conservation and biodiversity don’t tend to come up on doorsteps. I’m told that striving to protect what’s left of our natural woodlands, our peatlands or our seas won’t usually win votes.

I understand this to a point. For some issues, policy decisions impact directly and immediately on people. For good and for bad, pen strokes in Dublin change the course of people’s daily lives, in contrast to conservation efforts whose benefits play out over much longer timeframes.

Real change

The impact of environmental policy reform, whether brought about by grassroots activism or European Directives, is notional – at least at the beginning. All going well, policy decisions offer the opportunity for nature protection and restoration to occur, not the manifest improvement to nature itself – which we must then patiently wait to emerge in the years and decades to follow.

The Fair Seas campaign is a coalition of leading eNGOs and networks in Ireland and it is urgently calling on the Irish Government to protect 30% of Ireland’s seas by 2030. In fact, over 196 countries worldwide have signed up to this commitment, in what has become commonly known as the 30×30 target.

The beauty of our seas, and the diversity of marine wildlife that lives in them, could be a tremendous source of pride for people living on this island.

In recent months, the awe-inspiring influx of basking sharks to our coasts is a privilege to behold. Basking sharks are the second biggest fish in the world, but if you are having a wild swim off Malin Head or Keem Bay when one passes by, then believe me you’ll swear on your life they are the biggest.

Yet, what we must remind ourselves of is that Ireland’s marine biodiversity is the remnants of what it once was.

Ireland’s wildlife has survived in our coastal shallows and far-off seas despite, not because of our efforts.

It raises a contradiction environmentalists live with every day, where we marvel and shout about the beauty of nature all around us, while at the same time knowing and despairing of what is in store for our beautiful habitats and species if we don’t act now.

Ireland has continued to miss many of its environmental targets, including a 2020 goal to designate 10% of its marine waters in a marine protected area. Unfortunately, even with 9% of our waters designated for protection, the proper management needed for these areas to be effective is lacking.

Not enough 

Most of our marine protected sites are either Special Areas of Conservation or Special Protection Areas born out of the EU Habitats and Birds Directives. Many of these don’t have site-specific conservation objectives, let alone the management plans in place to deliver them.

Worse again, even with well-rounded management plans in place, crucial activities such as enforcement, monitoring and stakeholder engagement are neglected, because of a lack of appropriate structures within Government Departments and state agencies.

It’s worth noting the timescales of politics and that nature’s restoration are very different. But surely that should bolster the political drive to protect nature, not lessen it. As the old proverb goes, ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in’. And so it is with protecting our seas. We must strategise and act with ambition and urgency so that the full benefits of nature restoration can reveal themselves in generations to come.

We now all have an opportunity to plant the seeds of effective marine protection for the future. The Irish Government is currently drafting legislation which will allow it to designate new national marine protected areas to conserve and restore Ireland’s most rare, vulnerable, threatened and pristine marine habitats and species.

We had hoped that the Marine Protected Area Bill would be laid in front of the Dáil before the summer recess. There has been a disappointing lack of progress on this front since the General Scheme of the Bill was published in December 2022 and the associated Joint Oireachtas Committee pre-legislative scrutiny report was published soon after. It is vital the MPA Bill is published, debated and progressed through the Oireachtas in the Autumn.

On the whole, I’m not convinced by the argument that the health and stewardship of nature aren’t vote winners here in Ireland. There are many studies and polls showing the high regard Irish people put on the ocean. What I do know, however, is that there is no better way to start advocating for change in society, than to demand it from your politicians.

This summer, tell your elected representatives you want strong and ambitious marine protected area legislation, tell them it’s beyond time Ireland led from the front on safeguarding our seas, and on behalf of Ireland’s future generations demand some proverbial shade to sit in.

Dr Donal Griffin is Marine Policy Officer with the Fair Seas campaign, a coalition of Ireland’s leading environmental non-governmental organisations and networks. 


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