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Minister English's Address to the Ocean Wealth Summit

Published on Friday, 29 Jun 2018
Aire Stáit Damien English TD

Address to the Ocean Wealth Summit, Central Pier, Galway Docks, Galway – 9.00am, Friday 29th June



Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to welcome you all here today to the second day of Our Ocean Wealth Summit. This is the fifth year of the Our Ocean Wealth Summit and each year the world class contributors provide a compelling, thought provoking two days. This year, with our theme “Investing in Marine Ireland” it is no different.

I wish to take the opportunity this morning to update you on the work of my Department across four marine related areas. I wish to update on Marine Environment issues, our ongoing work in preparing Ireland’s Marine Spatial Plan and the legislation which will provide a much needed overhaul of the Foreshore Act. Firstly, I want to focus my remarks on another area with a long history that has once again come to the forefront in recent times, this is the issue of seaweed.


Seaweed harvesting has a long tradition in this country going back many centuries. Seaweed was traditionally harvested to feed livestock or as fertiliser applied directly to crops. In more recent times, the sale of seaweed also helped supplement the income of families in many coastal and island communities.  As I have indicated on a number of occasions, I am very conscious of the traditional role played by seaweed harvesters up and down the west coast of Ireland over many generations. I respect the heritage of seaweed harvesting and the way in which they have protected and safeguarded the resource through sustainable harvesting practises. I am also conscious of the potential economic value of this resource, which when sustainably managed, has huge potential for growth and can make a very real and sustained contribution to coastal communities.  The challenge is to ensure the co-existence of seaweed harvesting while we also embrace the opportunities which are now presenting within this sector.

We are now seeing, through research and development and through the use of advancing technological processes, that seaweed is the key raw material required in bio-pharma, niche food production, and the bio stimulant sector. The key issue for those businesses is a security of supply and with this in mind they applied to my Department to obtain licences to harvest seaweed. As we considered these applications, a number of specific points arose requiring legal clarification:

  • the legal position with regard to rights to harvest seaweed;
  • the nature and extent of  the different types of rights;  
  • the interaction of these rights with the Foreshore Act; and
  • the sustainability of the resource including appropriate methods for conducting biomass estimates.

To resolve these issues, my officials engaged with the Attorney General, the Property Registration Authority of Ireland, representatives of the industry, and the harvesters themselves to establish the interaction between existing rights to harvest seaweed and the Foreshore Act. In broad terms, what we have established is that these rights exist and that they must be respected both those of a formal nature reflected on folios and those of a more informal nature known as profit-a-prendre.

What has now emerged from our work and the advice received is that that my Department cannot licence seaweed harvesting in an area where a right exists and those rights holders who exercise their right to harvest seaweed do not require consent under the Foreshore Act.

I have written to all of the applicants advising them of this position and affording them the opportunity to ascertain how their applications are impacted by the advice that I have received.  For many of the applicants involved, I appreciate that this will not be a simple task. However, based on the advice of the Attorney General, it is simply not possible for me to grant licences these applications as they currently stand.  

In the course of my assessment of these issues over recent months, I have had the welcome opportunity to meet many people in this sector and listen to their views. I realise that there is a great potential here if we take the rights decisions to realise it. At the core of these issues is the necessity to develop a policy for the development of this sector which has a robust and transparent licencing system.

Any licensing system is robust, transparent, ensures the sustainability of the resource, respects our marine ecosystem, recognises the valuable role that seaweed plays for all those involved in the sector from the harvester to the processor, and importantly respects those existing rights while also facilitating the growth of an industry which has shown its capability of providing high value employment in coastal communities. I believe that with careful research and working together to develop a licencing system that serves the needs of all stakeholders we can grow a sustainable wild seaweed harvesting industry capable of serving rural communities for many years to come.

Today, I have taken the important step in giving the sector the legal clarity that was required. I recognise that there is more work to do for this sector. To ensure this future work is a success, the Department or body charged with that work must have at its disposal the range of policy levers and supports which a number of reports on the sector have identified are required. I will be working with colleagues within a short timeframe to identify the most suitable body to take responsibility for the wild seaweed sector.    

Marine Spatial Planning

I now wish to move on and deal with Marine Spatial Planning matters. The development of an overarching national marine spatial plan was first identified as a Government policy objective in Ireland’s Integrated Marine Plan, Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth (HOOW). We identified that the organisation, regulation and protection of marine-based activity in Irish waters was being carried out on a sectoral and demand-driven basis, without a strategic framework.

MSP is also underpinned by EU legislation. The 2014 MSP Directive established an EU-wide framework for MSP. The directive established a framework for MSP, and defined it as “a process by which the relevant Member State’s authorities analyse and organise human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives”. We transposed the Directive under EU Regulations but there is an Amendment to the Planning and Development Bill working its way through the Dáil at the moment to give MSP the same legislative footing as the National Planning Framework.

In December 2017, Minister Eoghan Murphy and I launched Towards a Marine Spatial Plan for Ireland, a roadmap for the development of Ireland’s first marine plan. In it we clearly set out the principles of engagement for this process. We believe marine plans should be strategic, concise and informed by effective public and stakeholder participation. Therefore, a core objective is to ensure that, as well as the wider public, all relevant stakeholders are consulted and encouraged to contribute.

We are facilitating this dialogue in a number of ways. An Interdepartmental Group is overseeing the development of the plan - this is chaired by my Department and is made up of senior representatives from the Marine Institute here in Oranmore, and representatives of local government and the relevant Government Departments.

Next, we have an Advisory Group made up of key stakeholders from the economic, environmental and social pillars and we also have a parallel process of stakeholder engagement with a strong focus on coastal communities and smaller unaligned stakeholders. This strand is critically important.

Staff from the MSP team have been engaged in a series of public engagements nationwide and this will continue. Indeed, they are here today as part of the trade show and I encourage you all to make the time to visit them. Larger, more regionally focused events will take place in the autumn and into early 2019.

You can also interact online with the MSP section on Twitter to find out when there will be an event on your area or send them an email to be added to their mailing list. In September, I intended to release a Baseline Report of the current situation in Ireland’s seas and that will be followed by a two-month public consultation period, so that will be the first chance for individuals and communities to formally input into the MSP process.

I am obviously preaching to the converted today but it still merits saying that the future of our marine area is of critical importance to everyone in Ireland. We are an island nation but we have not always appreciated the value of our ocean wealth – and I don’t just mean economically. That is no longer the case. We now have a unique opportunity to take a step back and consider the type of marine area we want to have. How do we want it to look in five years, 10 years, one hundred years? I would like to urge all of you here to consider that question and get involved in our process - help us shape the marine plan that you want, for all of our futures.

Marine Environment

Now I wish to turn my focus to marine environment issues which are now a daily news event. I believe however that we are, thankfully, entering a new era, where the necessity of protecting our oceans and using them sustainably is gaining global attention and consequently there is now awareness that positive action is required.  There is a coming together of minds from governments, science, academia, civil society, NGOs, and the private sector at a national and indeed global level to tackle the challenges we face. This is the catalyst bringing about a changed mind-set and resulting in strong proactive worldwide actions to address the decline of our marine ecosystems. 

Our maritime area has not been subject to the same level of devastating pressures from marine litter, sewage, polluting chemicals and other harmful activities as other global regions.  But this is not to say that there are not issues or urgency for us too.  The Marine Strategy Framework Directive requires us to ensure our maritime area is kept in “Good Environmental Status” and that we use our marine area sustainably.  But this is to our advantage. Sustainability and healthy ecosystems benefit us economically as well as environmentally.

We depend on the oceans for jobs, food, energy and even our oxygen.  It is essential to take strong steps to protect and improve their environmental health. We must engage with policy makers, the private sector, civil society and the scientific communities to ensure that we address the demanding issues facing us today. Without changed behaviour, we are facing the decline of our seas’ health.  Our ecosystems on land are intrinsically linked with those of our oceans.  It is not an exaggeration to say that if we damage our seas enough, we are placing our own survival as a species in jeopardy.

We must direct our efforts and energies to reinvigorate the economy by a healthy transition to a sustainable blue economy.  We need to secure the social, cultural and economic benefits that our marine assets can deliver for ourselves and our children.

Addressing marine environmental pressures is critical for our tourism industry. Unfortunately coastal areas and resorts face severe environmental pressures. The viability and sustainability of our tourist industry must be a priority.

As an Island nation with one of the largest maritime areas in the EU, the health of the Oceans must be at the core of our national, regional and international plans and engagement with our society.    The topic of this summit is very relevant to Ireland’s Integrated Marine Plan “Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth”, which is a whole of Government approach to our marine environment. 

My Department is responsible for national marine environmental policy - chiefly achieved by implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive or MSFD.  We also work very closely with OSPAR Regional Sea Convention partners, to reduce the impact of pollution and the harmful effects of human activities in the north east Atlantic region.  We are working to integrate environmental considerations into all aspects of marine policy and activity to maintain or reach good environmental status, then ensure that this status is maintained through sustainable use of our seas.

We support a range of marine environmental research, educational and awareness raising, and citizen activation programmes operated by State Agencies, academic institutions, An Taisce and other NGOs.

My officials and I are currently working on introducing legislation to prohibit the sale or manufacture of products containing plastic microbeads that are likely to be rinsed into our wastewater systems. I hope to introduce this legislation later this year. This is a priority for my Department.

Once this legislation is complete, our priority will be the establishment of a network of ecologically coherent marine protected areas, or MPAs, in our maritime area.This will require both drafting legislation to enable the designation and protection of MPAs along with a parallel process to identify what MPAs are required above existing special areas of conservation.

Dealing with the challenges facing Ireland’s marine environment is a political priority for me. I believe that these challenges can only be addressed by joined up thinking and actions and I am pleased to say that there are now joined up actions at Government level.

Marine litter is generated by both land and sea based activities. For example, there is significant cooperation between Minister Naughten’s Department and mine to deal with this issue.  We are also working with Minster Ross’s Department on the new Port Reception Facilities Directive to reduce marine litter inputs.

Ireland takes a lead role in many areas in relation to marine environmental policy in Europe.The marine environment is a transboundary one and it requires a transboundary approach.As well as working with our EU partners though MSFD, we work closely with our colleagues in OSPAR.In fact, Ireland leads a number of OSPAR maritime actions in particular relating to marine litter.For example an environmental economic study on the legal and economic best practice measures to reduce the impact of single use items commonly found as marine litter was commissioned by my Department to inform the development of a new action at OSPAR level. If this action is agreed, OSPAR nations will be required to develop strategic national plans in relation to their most problematic single use items that complement the EU plastic strategy, but take into account particular local difficulties. These may include legal or economic measures, waste management, litter enforcement and awareness raising measures as appropriate.I have instructed my Department to make this report available to the public through our website where it will be published shortly.

Ireland is involved in a number of INTERREG programmes linked to some of the OSPAR actions we lead.My Department is the lead Irish partner on the OCEANWISE programme to reduce the impact of Expandable Polystyrene as marine litter.   The Marine Institute participates in the CLEANATLANTIC project, modelling marine litter pathways and hotspots in the NE Atlantic, and the iFADO project (Innovation in the Framework of the Atlantic Deep Ocean) developing new and innovative marine environmental and ecosystem monitoring techniques combining traditional monitoring with new cost-effective, state-of-the-art technologies. My Department also provides matching funding for all these programmes.  

I am convinced that scientific research into marine litter and marine ecology is an essential resource, not just for Ireland but also globally. I am committed to supporting our scientists and researchers to ensure that they continue to lead the way with evidence based research projects. 

For example, with EPA support, GMIT, UCD and UCC are undertaking two major research studies on the sources, pathways and fate of microlitter entering freshwater systems (which eventually end up in marine waters) and the impact of microplastics on aquatic organisms.  This research will feed into policy development nationally and at EU level informing measures to address microplastic litter. 

The Marine Institute undertakes a wide range of marine environmental and marine litter research and monitoring activities, including the very important seabed litter survey.  

My Department commission’s research and monitoring measures including ongoing monitoring of beach litter used to inform national, EU and OSPAR marine litter policy.

I must also mention the voluntary sector, which has been working tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain our coasts for years.  For example, there are now over 600 local community groups involved in the An Taisce led Clean Coast programme working around our coastline to improve their local areas and amenities.

I am heartened to see the upsurge in citizen awareness and engagement.  I want to assure you that your voices are heard and appreciated.    I am proud to say that my Department provides funding and active assistance to a wide range of citizen awareness and activation programmes. It is an indicator of their importance that we have included several of these programmes under our formal MSFD Programme of Measures and have committed to funding them as marine environmental actions to the UN.

Education of our young people is crucial and I particularly want to mention the Marine Environment module of our Green Schools programme - rolled out nationwide last year. It gave me great pleasure to hand out the first Green School Flags ever to be awarded to schools for this module this May. These amazing young people with their incredible awareness, skills and knowledge influence their families’ friends and communities in turn. They are now our ambassadors and the custodians of our environmental future.

Our fishing industry is answering the call to address marine litter challenges.  I commend them for their engagement with Bord Iascaigh Mhara in a wide range of marine litter activities such as the “Why Knot” and “Fishing for Litter” schemes alongside other BIM initiatives such as seeking ways to address the problems of ghost fishing gear.

We are all familiar now with the images on our screens of overwhelming levels of marine litter in our oceans.The Circular economy principles of reducing consumption, reusing items and recycling are central to mitigating this.We all need to change how we live and consume in the coming years to prevent further devastation of our environment.

In this context, I was very pleased to welcome recent EU initiatives such as the Plastics Strategy and the proposed single use items directive. This approach will present some societal challenges, but it is clear that our current “disposable society” is not sustainable – particularly as the planet’s population increases.

The Government is committed to increasing the value of a sustainable blue economy by 2030. Equally, we are committed to maintain or, in some cases regain the good environmental status of Ireland’s maritime area.  My Officials and I will continue our work to identify effective measures and take the necessary steps to provide solutions to deal with the complex challenges facing our marine environment.

Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill (MAFA)

Finally, to conclude my remarks today, as you will be aware the Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill intends to streamline the marine consent process through aligning the foreshore consent system with the planning system and providing for a single Environmental Impact Assessment for projects.  It will also provide a coherent mechanism to facilitate and manage development in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and on the continental shelf, including for the first time, a comprehensive regime for the regulation of Offshore Renewable Energy.

I know that the timescale for this legislation attracted some discussion at yesterday’s session on offshore renewables. The process of drafting this legislation in line with the Government decision has brought to light many technically challenging and legally complex issues being tackled for the first time in an Irish context. To ensure a robust regulatory environment fit for the 21st century it is vital to get this legislation right.   While we all wish to have rapid progress, the investment of time and consideration now should prevent future impediments to development and avoid repeating many of the mistakes of the past.  

Those issues, subject of intensive efforts by my officials to resolve, impact a range of marine functions across government.    A different legislative configuration to that envisaged in the general scheme may therefore be necessary.

Upon receipt of finalised legal advice I aim to bring to government options intended to progress the modernisation of marine consenting as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible. 

I want to thank you for your attention and I hope you enjoy the remainder of today conference and all of those activities for the rest of the Seafest festival.