Bigger and Better Marine Protected Areas

A marine protected area network for Ireland

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 leading to loss of coastal habitats and nutrient increases in estuaries, oil and gas exploration, renewable energy, plastic pollution, dredging for building materials, shipping and tourism are all ways in which we are putting pressure on the oceans 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, more importantly, restoration efforts.

Once this is achieved, 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.


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 oceans by 2030 and increase restoration efforts of some key habitats: Saltmarshes, seagrass, kelp, and oyster reefs. These are common habitats found in Ireland and the restoration of these will be crucial to rebuild local 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 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 an explainer of 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 monitoring or enforcement. As a result, marine habitats show a declining trend 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 successfully challenged the process by which the fishery was opened and the case will be mentioned in the High Court in March 2020. Read more here: RAZOR SHELL DREDGING IN IRELAND briefing KD after day 3 High court

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.

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