I am very pleased to address this conference today and discuss how the State must urgently improve its approach to protection of marine biodiversity. It was Fianna Fáil’s amendment that provided for the declaration of both a climate and biodiversity emergency and Fianna Fáil which called for the biodiversity crisis to examined by the Citizens’ Assembly.

As an island nation with marine areas making up over 90% of our territory, we have a particularly significant relationship with our seas. And we have both a moral obligation to protect and enhance the immense natural resources of our waters and ensure future generations will be able to enjoy them. There are also clear legal obligations on the State to protect its ecosystems. This is especially true in terms of vulnerable deep-sea habitats.

I want to address the challenge before us, including the Fine Gael Government’s extremely poor record on marine protection and respond to some of the questions on designation of Marine Protected Areas.

I am disturbed by the assessment of by the National Parks and Wildlife Service two weeks ago in relation to marine biodiversity with almost all marine habitats were found to be inadequate or in bad condition. I am also very much aware that there are several species indigenous to Irish waters facing extinction.

These national findings tie in with equally disturbing global analysis, including the recent “IPBES” Global Assessment Report. The Report underlines that we are currently faced with a global emergency. Ecosystems are rapidly declining and species at risk of extinction due to massive increases in production, excessive working of seas, land and soils, as well as the climate crisis and rising levels of pollution. It also highlights the extremely damaging impacts of wastewater, plastics and fertilizer use. And all of this is expected to intensify over the coming decades.

The designation of Marine Protected Areas aligns with the recommendations listed in the Global Assessment Report which call for stronger environmental laws, greater enforcement, shifting subsidies to encourage protective measures, as well as public awareness raising campaigns on biodiversity protection. Marine Protected Areas (pr MPAs) are an important policy tool for protecting vulnerable marine and coastal species and habitats. They also generate goods and services that can benefit other sectors in the “blue” economy.

In short, the case for MPAs is abundantly clear. And, as I’m sure everyone here would say, it has been for quite some time. Yet Ireland’s response, as with so many environmental standards, remains poor. The State is way behind on meeting its commitments. We are nowhere near the 2020 target to have 10% of marine area designated. The Government must respect obligations to protect marine ecosystems, as set out in the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, and take seriously the legal and policy changes necessary to reach the 30% designation target, which many experts are calling for.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Government’s main actions in this area are more about PR than real policy change. As you know, in June the Government held a significant conference on this area, called Our Ocean Wealth Summit, and invited representatives from several small-island states. The Tánaiste stated that Ireland wanted to give leadership on the important issues of protecting the seas and maritime environment and countering climate change. Yet I don’t believe any indications were made from any Government Minister in relation to progressing Marine Protected Areas. It was the former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who pointed out at the conference, that Ireland had to step up, with just 2 per cent of its waters protected, the second-lowest in Europe.

The Government should have advanced protection of reefs in particular, as has been recommended by the European Commission. And messages from Government Ministers that another ‘expert working group’ will be convened simply aren’t good enough.

I understand that the Government’s publication of the Marine Planning Development Management Bill in July is potentially positive in that it can allow for further designation in accordance with EU law. But we have to be clear – this is only a Heads of Bill. This Bill needs to take account of a range of improved legal protections and for greater transparency around responsibilities and enforcement, as has been rightly highlighted in the asks of Coastwatch and the IWT. The Bill should also take account of the Green Party’s motion on protecting oceanic resources which Fianna Fáil supported in the Seanad last year. As noted in the motion, the roll out of MPAs as part of a broader Oceans Act is key. Designation must also be community- and guided by consultation with all stakeholders.

Ultimately, to say that marine ecosystems and biodiversity loss have not been a priority of this Fine Gael Government would be an understatement. We must end the empty rhetoric on “sustainability” – no one is buying it, particularly younger citizens.

To repeat the conclusion of the 2018 Living Planet Report: “we are the first generation that has a clear picture of the value of nature and the enormous impact we have on it. We may also be the last generation that can act to reverse this trend”.