I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee. I apologise for being a few minutes late. The Irish Wildlife Trust is a national non-governmental organisation, a wildlife charity and a member of the Irish Environmental Network. I am joined by my colleague, Ms Attracta Uí Bhroin, who is the environmental law officer of the Irish Environmental Network. The Bill we are considering is immensely important. We know the committee is aware of this. We know from the previous witnesses' statements that getting this Bill right is essential for the future of Ireland, for how we deal with climate change and for planning in the marine environment for the next decade, at least. It is vital we get this right.
We are deeply conscious of our legally binding targets on greenhouse gas emissions reductions and, just as importantly, the reality of climate change and the intertwined biodiversity crisis. We are sensitive to the need for a just transition, the exciting new appetite to "build back better" and the great opportunities for Ireland in moving to a truly green economy. I cannot emphasise that point enough. As an organisation, we are fully behind our climate change targets.
We have an opportunity now to get this legislation right and to do planning right in the marine environment. However, we have specific concerns. We must not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of this Bill is to provide a framework for sustainable planning in the marine environment and therefore should not be fashioned to facilitate the development of one sector only. In our view, the general scheme does not adequately address the requirements of the maritime spatial planning directive. The marine spatial plan required by the directive must be established by the end of March. The draft spatial plan published for consultation earlier in 2020 is not adequate in respect of the directive. These are potential issues for the Bill and the strategy.
The maritime spatial planning directive is central to outlining what this Bill needs to do and how the planning context is to be created. In turn, this will inform how Ireland, as an EU member state, is legally obliged to address its stewardship of the marine environment and its approach to the management of development within it. Without this framework, future development in the marine environment will be beset by issues of legal uncertainty, something that is not good for business, the environment or our citizens.
We welcome the opportunity to share and discuss further this morning our legal concerns and recommendations, particularly in respect of the requirements of the marine spatial planning directive and Ireland’s inadequate response to it; to flag other matters arising from the heads of the Bill, such as policy and public participation; and to touch on the importance of cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins, in this context. We should earn the hard lessons from other expedited legislation such as that for strategic housing
developments, which has not delivered what is needed or promised.
As we turn to expand focus on infrastructure development in the marine environment, we need to recognise the significant damage which has already been inflicted on our ocean ecosystems.
The impacts of over-fishing, destruction of marine habitats, pollution, including from raw sewage discharges and plastic waste, have led to a loss of economic and amenity value as well as a catastrophic collapse in marine life. These effects are both exacerbated by, and contribute to, global heating, leading to sea level rise, extreme weather events and ocean acidification, which will devastate coastal and low-lying areas of Ireland.
A vital response to this is the creation of marine protected areas, MPAs. Members heard from my colleague, Ms Dubsky, that we have not fulfilled our targets on marine protected areas to date. Only about 2% of our seas enjoy nominal protection and we know that is not sufficient because those areas are not managed and biodiversity continues to be lost. Our approach to planning and development cannot be considered sustainable in the absence of a far more proactive approach to restoration, protection and conservation.
We hope to raise our concerns in regard to the approach to aquaculture and fisheries and their relevance here. Aquaculture and marine fishing can be low impact activities that actively benefit local communities and coastal economies. However, poor regulation and management have resulted in negative impacts to important areas for biodiversity, the loss of economic opportunity, the introduction of alien invasive species and the destruction of habitats even within existing marine protected areas.
We now have a valuable opportunity to develop a new approach to economic activity in the marine environment, one that benefits long-term sustainability of diverse local economies and coastal communities and the wider public interest. However, this is placed at risk if we pursue a short-sighted and excessively limited view of those opportunities precipitated by an intense drive by private interests. That is a point we wish to highlight to the members, as legislators and public representatives. We recommend that a focus on marine protected areas be prioritised. As a matter of law and public interest, they cannot be left as an afterthought.
We welcome this meeting as a constructive opportunity to make sure we engage together to get this right. I thank the members for their attention. We look forward to responding to their questions as best we can and to follow up, where necessary, given the scale and complexity of the general scheme and the extent to which exactly what is proposed and how issues will be resolved is, regrettably, still unclear.