The destruction of species, wildlife, flora, fauna, ecosystems and the natural world is a greater threat to our planet and humanity than any we have faced ever before. Last month, Dáil Éireann declared a national biodiversity crisis. It is up to us, as legislators, to act and to live up to the scale of action needed to tackle the crisis we are facing and it is up to the Government to change tack, take the protection and preservation of our natural world seriously and tackle this biodiversity crisis head on.
On 8 May 2019, the National Parks and Wildlife Service released Ireland's sixth national report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. There is currently no mention of this report on the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's website. The report shows that we are still failing to halt the loss of our nature. It states that In Ireland, 91% of protected habitats are in poor or inadequate condition and more than 50% are declining. In addition, 14% of species assessed are considered to be endangered. The report states unequivocally that a "transformational change is required" to achieve the vision set out in the National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021 that "biodiversity and ecosystems in Ireland are conserved and restored, delivering benefits essential for all sectors of society". It continues:
Although better conservation designations have been put in place and improved environmental management has been adopted, the mainstreaming of biodiversity has yet to amount to a fully integrated approach. It is unclear if the greater consideration being given to sustainability and biodiversity in sectoral policy is sufficient to turn around the continuing degradation of habitat and species populations, and the threats to key ecosystem services.
It is clear from reading this that the Government is simply not doing enough. This is damning stuff from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It is basically saying business as usual is killing off wildlife.
Ireland was among 130 members represented at the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES, plenary meeting, which took place in Paris recently, and at which the IPBES global assessment was approved. Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries in the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impact on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades. Based on the systematic review of approximately 15,000 scientific and government sources, the report also draws, for the first time ever on this scale, on indigenous and local knowledge, and addresses in particular issues relevant to indigenous peoples and local communities. According to the IPBES report, three quarters of the land-based environment and approximately 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average, these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.
In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels. Some 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished. Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, with between 300 million and 400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities being dumped annually into the world’s waters. Fertilisers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean dead zones, totalling more than 245,000 sq. km, a combined area greater than the United Kingdom.
The entire natural world is in crisis, yet last year the Government passed the slash and burn Heritage Act, which will have devastating impacts on wildlife on uplands and in hedgerows. The wildlife in our seas is in great danger too. The Irish Wildlife Trust’s 2018 report shows that 48 species indigenous to Irish waters are facing extinction. The Government’s INFOMAR and ObSERVE programmes have found even more of a wealth of species off our coasts. The ObSERVE programme found a dolphin population off Ireland’s coast in winter that is larger than the entire known population of dolphins in the world. Recently, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group tracked a humpback whale from County Kerry feeding near the Porcupine Basin to Cape Verde in north-west Africa. It took the group 16 years to do so. Ireland is a feeding ground for dolphins, blue whales and humpback whales and many more species from all over the globe. We do not know where their breeding grounds are. This information highlights that we know next to nothing about what we are destroying off our coasts.
That brings me to the dangers of seismic testing to explore for oil and gas off the Irish coast. To map the seabed for fossil fuel deposits, sonic cannons, also known as seismic airguns, are towed behind boats creating dynamite-like blasts, repeated every ten seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks and months at a time, at acoustic levels 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. Seismic airgun testing increased dramatically from 2013 onwards. Noise from a single seismic airgun survey, used to discover oil and gas deposits hundreds of kilometres under the sea floor, can blanket an area of more than 300,000 sq. km, raising background noise levels by 100 times continuously for weeks or months. Seismic airgun surveys are loud enough to penetrate hundreds of kilometres into the ocean floor, even after going through thousands of metres of ocean. Seismic blasts can have damaging effects for up to 4,000 km. There is a wealth of peer reviewed evidence to show that these surveys do damage to wildlife. As highlighted by the Irish documentary, "Ireland’s Deep Atlantic", and the film, "Atlantic", seismic testing blasts are essentially waves of death that cause disorientation and internal bleeding in cetaceans for distances of up to 100 miles. This is why Dingle fishermen find deep sea beings such as giant squid in their nets after rounds of seismic testing in the Porcupine Basin.
Oil and gas exploration, apart from its effect on the climate, destroys fundamental aspects of the ocean's fabric. Despite this, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has repeatedly told this House that it will not ban exploration from areas in which these deep sea coral reefs are found or dolphins or blue whales are feeding. The Minister confirmed this again this week when he went back on his previous statements and attempted to stop the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill by calling for a money message before the Bill proceeds to Committee Stage.
I ask the Government to draw on indigenous and local knowledge in Ireland. Irish fishermen are reporting drops in fish populations in the Porcupine Basin. They are banned from fishing in the area over months of seismic testing and return to find whiting, cod, tuna and general wildlife populations reduced. The Government is damaging fish populations and wildlife for a privatised, speculative industry that provides no jobs, long-term income for the State or energy security as we do not have oil refineries that would meet demand. Things must change. The Government's business as usual strategy spells disaster not just for human existence but for the future of all life on this planet.