Bigger and Better Marine Protected Areas

A marine protected area network for Ireland


***New Report on Ireland’s failure to protect marine Natura 2000 sites***

Read about the underlying causes of ongoing deterioration of protected marine flora and fauna and what needs to be done to reverse this trend.


Watch our video on how to make MPAs better – in ‘five steps to turn paper parks into super parks’:


Watch our video on ‘five reasons to create strictly protected marine areas NOW’:


Follow this link to our MPA explainer page to find out more about what marine protected areas are, the types of MPAs found in Ireland and what legislation underpins their designation. You can also read our MPA report from 2018 here and the IWT MPA policy is available here.


Heavy human use of the marine environment has left our seas in a poor condition. Commercial fishing has been practiced in Europe for over 1000 years  and with the advent of industrial fishing the pressure on our oceans has been scaled up dramatically. Aquaculture, agriculture, oil and gas exploration, renewable energy, plastic pollution and noise pollution are all ways in which we are putting additional pressure on the ocean every day. The good news is that some of these activities can be managed through a well thought-out marine spatial plan. The plan must take into account the location of vulnerable ecosystems and ensure they are protected in a well-connected and managed network of areas which are set aside for the sole purpose of active conservation and, in some cases, restoration efforts. Ireland’s first marine spatial plan is due to be published in late 2020.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a proven tool to provide much needed ecosystem restoration and even contribute to sustainable fishing and climate change mitigation. They are safe havens for animals and plants to grow and reproduce without the threat of damaging human activities. Such havens are vital if marine ecosystems are to withstand all the additional pressures they face day to day, such as rising temperatures and ocean acidification.

Fishing down the food web, a North Sea perspective. Inspired by the work of Daniel Pauly. © Hans Hillewaert

Highly protected marine areas and biodiversity

Decades of fishing with trawls and dredges have resulted in widespread destruction of benthic habitats, while large predatory fish have declined by an estimated 90% since the beginning of industrial fishing. However, sealife has remarkable resilience and the ability to bounce back quickly once main pressures are removed.  Scientists worldwide agree that a coherent network of MPAs under strict management can be a helpful tool to combat environmental degradation caused by fishing and other extractive activities, as well as increase the resilience of marine habitats to better cope with other stressors that lie beyond MPA boundaries.

Strict protection of even the most highly impacted places has resulted in significant increases in biodiversity over relatively short time frames. From sessile animals like sponges or corals to highly mobile fish species, many organisms benefit from a balanced ecosystem where they can feed and reproduce in peace.


Highly protected marine areas and climate

Climate change mitigation: MPAs can play a crucial, low cost role in the mitigation of climate change.

Seagrass bed in Bantry Bay, Cork.
© Regina Classen

Strict protection of habitats that are very rich in carbon (e.g. seagrass, kelp) can prevent a rise in new emissions which would otherwise result from loss or degradation of these areas. Restoration of habitats that were already lost and ensuring they are well protected could contribute significantly to additional carbon storage in our seas. In surveys conducted by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in recent years, 52% of the protected habitat ‘large shallow inlets and bays’ was classed as bad mostly due to total or partial loss of seagrass habitat. Removing the pressures on this habitat type is a vital first step to ensure Ireland’s biodiversity and climate goals are met.

Climate change adaptation: Restoration and protection of coastal saltmarsh, kelp forests, or oyster and mussel reefs, can help reduce the impact of storms and coastal flooding, thereby reducing the need for hard engineering. Networks of protected areas may act as stepping stones for species as they move towards polar regions in response to rising temperatures. Furthermore, due to improved ecosystem health within MPAs, habitats become more resilient in the face of climate change and pollution.

Highly protected marine areas and fisheries

MPAs lead to changes in population structure in ways that promote replenishment. In one study, biomass of all trophic fish groups (predator and prey) has been shown to increase significantly (between 40%-200%) in no-take marine reserves. As the animals within the reserve grow larger over time, they also produce more eggs, are more successful at reproduction and produce fitter young. Target species with low mobility such as scallops and lobsters are found to profit substantially from no-take zones in the UK. Dive surveys carried out in Lamlash Bay, a community-led marine reserve, showed significant increases in catch per unit effort (109%), weight per unit effort (189%) and carapace length (10-15 mm) of the European lobster Hommarus gammarus. Furthermore, scientists found twice as many berried lobsters within the reserve compared to outside, which shows that the reserve has a positive impact on productivity.


A grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) pup rests on a bed of seaweeds (credit


A 2020 study found that we can rebuild marine life by 2050 if we take some drastic measures, including  scaling up protection to cover 30% of our ocean by 2030 and increase restoration efforts of some key habitats: Saltmarshes, seagrass, kelp, and oyster reefs (among others). These are common habitats found in Ireland and the restoration of these will be crucial to rebuild ecosystems. Restoration efforts alone will not be enough, however. We need better fisheries management, tackle pollution issues and markedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to rebuild ocean life to its former glory.

Most countries have signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreeing to protect 10% of their waters by 2020 and most countries are now on course to protecting 30% by 2030.




How is Ireland doing so far?

Ireland has currently designated only 2.4% of their marine waters as MPAs (in form of SACs and SPAs, see here for more information on these).

These maps show the current coverage of marine protected areas designated in Ireland:



Why do we need Bigger and Better MPAs?

Most MPAs in Ireland are not very good examples of the type of protected area needed to restore ocean life. Many harmful human activities are still taking place inside MPAs with little or no management or enforcement. As a result, marine habitats are deteriorating with losses of seagrass and functional extinction of oyster reefs evident around the country, mostly due to easily managed activities such as fishing and aquaculture, or agricultural and sewage pollution. One of the below maps show which areas are closed to certain types of fishing due to the damage that could be caused to the ecosystems present. The other map however shows the extent of bottom towed fishing gear and aquaculture activity still overlapping with marine SACs and SPAs.




And here is what Ireland’s exclusive economic zone would look like with 30% MPA coverage:


We want real protection within Ireland’s marine area and we need bigger and better MPAs to achieve this.

For this purpose, we are working with Coastwatch and Seas at Risk as part of a larger European campaign. Together with partner organisations in Portugal (Sciaena) and France (FNE), we hope to preserve precious ecosystems in European waters for future generations. This will give our seas spaces to breathe while we work on reducing additional stressors such as climate change and pollution.

For questions about this project and what you can do to help our oceans, contact us at or sign up here for our Bigger and Better Marine Protected Areas newsletter. For more information on MPAs you can follow us on Twitter @BiggerBetterMPA.



Razor shell dredging halted in Waterford Estuary

Coastwatch secures win for nature in Razor Shell fisheries court case! After a razor shell dredge fishery was opened illegally in a Marine Protected Area in Waterford Estuary without any risk assessments, Coastwatch successfully challenged this decision in the High Court. Read more here!


Wild Oceans Photo Competition

Throughout June, the IWT ran a marine themed photo contest. We received over a hundred entries of beautiful underwater and coastal images of Ireland. The winner was chosen by public vote and can be viewed here.


Public consultation submissions

Ireland’s first marine spatial plan is due to be published in 2020. This plan will be very important for the proper zonation and management of marine protected areas. Read our submission to the draft National Marine Planning Framework here!

Read our submission on the Marine Strategy Framework Directive here: IWT submission on MSFD.


General election

We campaigned for healthy seas during the general election 2020. Read our 8 asks for healthier seas here.