Tuesday, 12 June 2018
Marine Spatial Planning: Statements
On behalf of the Government and my Department I am very pleased to provide an update on marine spatial planning, following on from Senator Grace O'Sullivan's motion last month on marine environment matters. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I are delighted to have the chance to have this discussion on what is an important area. We had a discussion on the planning Bill earlier and I think it is important that we recognise how important it is that we have this strategy, that we devise it and get everybody involved as much as we can. The Minister, the Department and I are clear on this and would like to engage both Houses of the Oireachtas, with the committee process, in the next year and a half to two years, as we develop the plan which is important for the country and will mirror the concept followed with the national planning framework.
In May we had a debate on Senator Grace O'Sullivan's motion on the marine and marine environment matters, in which everyone took a great interest. All of the contributors to the debate appeared to agree that, as an island nation, the marine environment was a national asset that gave us many commercial and non-commercial benefits, for example, in the areas of biodiversity, seafood, tourism, recreation, renewable energy, cultural heritage and shipping. People are passionate about our seas. The future sustainable use, enjoyment and development of the marine area will affect many. Managing our ocean wealth requires an overarching national marine spatial plan for a structure to help to realise the full benefits of our ocean wealth and assist in managing our resources effectively and sustainably.
We will arrange for copies to be made available, if we can.
The development of an overarching national marine spatial plan was identified as a Government policy objective in Ireland's integrated marine plan, Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth. We identified that the organisation, regulation and protection of marine-based activity in Irish waters were being carried out on a sectoral and demand-driven basis, without a strategic framework in which sectoral policy objectives could be envisioned, planned for and delivered in the long term.
Marine spatial planning is also underpinned by EU legislation. The 2014 marine spatial planning directive established an EU-wide framework which defined marine spatial planning as a process by which the relevant member states authorised, analysed and organised human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives. It is important that the words "social objectives" are included because during the last debate it was felt we were not prioritising them. Clearly, they are included at a European and national level. That is what this is about; it is not just about the economy. It includes ecological, social and economic objectives.
The directive details the main goals and minimum requirements for member states as balanced and sustainable territorial development of marine waters and coastal zones; optimised development of maritime activities and business climate; better adaptation to risks; resource-efficient and integrated coastal and maritime development; lower transaction costs for maritime businesses and improved national competitiveness; improved certainty and predictability for private investments; improved certainty in obtaining financing for investments in the maritime area; improved use of sea space and the best possible coexistence of uses in coastal zones and marine waters; improved attractiveness of coastal regions as places in which to live and invest; reduced co-ordination costs for public authorities; greater development of innovation and research; and enhanced and integrated data and information. From a previous role as Minister of State with responsibility for skills, research and innovation, I know that there is an opportunity. We invest a lot of taxpayers' money in the research and development agenda. We have Innovation 2020, a plan into which we all buy, which brings Departments together and involves the use of taxpayers' money and private sector investment. There is an opportunity at European level for Ireland to lead the way in research and innovation in this area, certainly in the marine sector. We should be proud of this and take the opportunity to do so. There is a lot of marine space under our watch and we should avail of the opportunities presented much more. I hope we will be able to focus on it more clearly.
We transposed the directive through the European Union (Framework for Maritime Spatial Planning) Regulations 2016 which were signed into law on 29 June 2016. The regulations identify the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government as the competent authority for marine spatial planning, reflecting my Department's track record and expertise in forward planning generally. Senators will be aware from our earlier discussion that I am proposing amendments to the Planning and Development Bill 2016 to replace the existing regulations with a new primary legislative basis for marine spatial planning. I understand people accepted this in the end and agreed that, even though the process is a bit short, on the importance of doing so. Hopefully we will all benefit from that as we move on to develop our strategy. I want to give MSP greater prominence and introduce new arrangements for the plan-making process including governance, public participation, review and Oireachtas involvement, to ensure that the processes for making Ireland's two long-term forward spatial plans, one marine and the other terrestrial, are consistent and fully aligned, with equal importance.
Working within the existing framework, the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and I launched Towards a Marine Spatial Plan for Ireland, a roadmap for the development of Ireland's first marine spatial plan, in December 2017. In the roadmap document, we have clearly set out the principles of engagement for this process. We believe that marine spatial plans should be strategic, concise and informed by effective public and stakeholder participation to ensure buy-in with regard to implementation. We genuinely want that stakeholder participation and public involvement. We will have to go to great lengths to get that public interest and involvement. We attend many school events relating to this space and there is a lot of interest from young people. We have to get the same interest from different generations and all their families, to really get involved in this process, to get behind it and to think about what the plans are for our marine strategy for the next 15, 20 or 25 years. Hopefully we will be able to achieve that through different mechanisms. It is important that we have these debates in this House to highlight the issue and get the discussion going. Even online polls get people interested in this and it is important that we have that, to have people speak up about this space. We will go to great lengths to encourage people to contribute to that.
The importance of involving all stakeholders in the marine planning and marine sectoral issues was raised repeatedly during our discussion last month on Senator Grace O'Sullivan's motions and I am deeply committed to that, as is the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and our Department. The participation processes for MSP are being designed, tailored and structured to ensure meaningful, informed and timely engagement with the plan-making process. We are committed to involving people early on in the decision-making process and in developing specific policy within the framework provided by HOOW; engaging with interested people and organisations at the appropriate time using tailored and effective engagement methods, allowing sufficient time for meaningful consultation; and being adaptable, recognising that some consultation methods work better for some people and some issues and that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. I have met many of the groups involved. I am conscious that different forms of consultation will be needed and people will require different ways to get their thoughts together. It will not always be possible to have people together in one room, but we will go to great lengths to make sure that we get everyone's thoughts and initial concerns and deal with them as we go through the process to make sure we get the balance right as we develop this plan.
The process will also involve respecting the diversity of people and their lifestyles and giving people a fair chance to have their voices heard regardless of gender, age, race, abilities, sexual orientation, circumstances or wherever they live. It will involve being clear in the purpose of any engagement and how the public may contribute, letting people know how their views have been taken into account within agreed timescales, and making documents publicly available on the Department's website.
Senator Ó Domhnaill said that the feedback was not great. If people make a submission and if time allows, we could come back with feedback to explain why we did or did not take on board their thoughts. That would probably help further consultation. Although we want a national consultation, there may have been fewer submissions under the previous planning framework. We may have an opportunity to address that as best as we possibly can. When people get feedback it encourages more involvement. Another element is communicating clearly with people, using plain English and avoiding jargon as much as we possibly can given that it is a jargon-filled area.
In line with these objectives, a three-pronged engagement strategy is now underway and I want to spend some time outlining how this will happen. First, we have established an interdepartmental group to lead and oversee the development of the MSP. The group is chaired by my Department and is made up of senior representatives from the Marine Institute, local government and Departments whose policies and functions are relevant to the plan.
Second, I have been tasked with chairing an advisory group to facilitate participation in the MSP process by all relevant stakeholders from the economic, environmental and social pillars. The purpose of the advisory group is to harness the potential and capacity of a broad range of sectors, including representation from the public, business, environmental, social and knowledge-based sectors, to guide strategic thinking and decision-making in the preparation of marine spatial plans. We met for the first time in early March and tomorrow we will meet for the second time. The outputs of the group will also inform the work of the interdepartmental MSP group and provide updates, reports or recommendations as required.
The third strand is stakeholder engagement. This is a parallel process with a strong focus on awareness raising among coastal communities, smaller unaligned stakeholders and individual members of larger representative bodies. This strand is critically important and I hope we can get more people involved in the process. I thank the many Senators who have engaged in that process, including Senator O'Sullivan, and I encourage others to do the same when they have the opportunity to do so.
Staff from the MSP team in my Department have been engaged in a series of public engagements throughout the country over recent months and this will continue. These have ranged from conference presentations and meetings with sectoral groups such as the regional inshore fisheries forums, whose members are representative of the inshore sector, and fishermen using boats of less than 12 m in overall length, to smaller public meetings in coastal communities to help the public understand how they can feed into the plan by getting involved in the consultation processes. The latter have been advertised via local and regional groups, local newspapers, direct contact with stakeholder groups and using social media, in particular Twitter.
I ask Senators who are in daily contact with councillors and are working with others to encourage participation and ask colleagues at different levels of politics to spread the word. The local meetings are, by design, informal and low key and are taking place at the earliest possible stage before any ink has been committed to paper in a draft plan. They are intended purely to help explain the concept and processes around MSP and to give people time and space to think about how they want to shape the plan during the formal consultation and participation phases. Larger, more regionally focused events will take place in the autumn of this year and into early 2019.
I want to be very clear. We are an open book on this. There is no agenda and we do not have a plan in place. We genuinely want to hear everyone's views and thoughts. We are working with colleagues from other countries who have brought forward their own marine strategies and plans and are engaging with them on how the process worked for them, how they got people involved, and how they made their final decisions. There is a meeting this week with stakeholders from other countries who have been through this process. It is important that we recognise the work which is being carried out by staff in my Department and other Departments who have an interest in this area and are putting extra efforts into making sure we get this right. It is important that we do that.
The first opportunity for formal input will arise in the autumn following the publication of our baseline report. This document will outline the current situation in our seas, that is, the situation in terms of capturing the nature and locations of existing activities, developments and marine uses. The baseline report will also pose a series of questions to stakeholders to help frame their submissions. It will be published in September 2018 and will kick-start a two-month consultation period.
Following this, the draft MSP, including environmental assessments, is intended to be completed by quarter 2 of 2019 and will be followed by a three-month public consultation. Senators can see all the different elements of public consultation. It is a pity that Senator Ó Domhnaill has missed my contribution. Maybe people could inform him that we are going out of our way to make sure that there is consultation for everybody right throughout the process. We are very happy to come in here for a debate on this at any stage or to have a conversation in committee or in the Dáil because we want to have that conversation and involve all Members as much as possible.
In terms of the formal consultation on the draft marine plan, once the consultation period has closed, the responses will be analysed and a summary report, detailing any comments made, will be produced and published on our website. We will try to address at a detailed enough level, if possible, the issues people have raised so that they will understand that their submissions were read and taken on board, even though we might not be able to include everyone's idea.
This report will also set out any changes made to the plans as well as any changes that were not made and the reasons for that. Everyone who submitted a response will be notified when it is published. The final plan will be in place by mid-2020, just 30 months on from the launch of our roadmap document in December 2017. Once the plan is in place, it will be a key strategic spatial framework encompassing all plans and sectoral policies for the marine area. It will provide a coherent framework in which those sectoral policies and objectives can be realised. It will be the key decision-making tool for regulatory authorities and policymakers into the future in a number of ways, including decisions on individual consent applications which will have to be in line with the provisions of the plan in the same way that terrestrial plans form part of the decision-making toolkit in the on-land planning process. We will try to engage more online as we go through the planning and development Bill.
Ireland's national marine planning framework will close the loop, just as the national planning framework does for land-based sectors, by providing a key input to the development of future sectoral marine policies. It is about taking a long-term vision to areas that affect this country and looking ahead for next 20 to 25 years. I look forward to working with colleagues from all parties over the next two years of this process and it is to be hoped we can complete our work by the deadline.
I thank the Minister of State. He spoke about public consultation, which is important. Recently, Seal Rescue Ireland, which receives no State funding for its important work, released back into the wild seals who had been badly hurt in the ocean. During the release it spoke to schoolchildren about the importance of our oceans and marine life. That is an avenue the Minister of State needs to look at. He needs to talk to schools and children because they are part of our life.
There were in excess of 1,000 submissions to the national planning framework and the date was extended. We need to make sure that awareness is part of this process. I welcome that the Minister of State is looking for that because consultation will have a significant impact on this process.
It struck me that for an island nation we do not prioritise our ocean, beaches and marine life. We need to start immediately. The marine sector is a vital part of Ireland's economy. It provides key parts of our tourism and film industries, creates and sustains jobs, boosts small local economies and enriches our landscape. Protecting and maintaining the quality of our oceans is a pressing concern for the long-term health of our State and future generations. If the Minister of State will excuse the pun, we need to take our heads out of the sand on this.
Ireland has specific legally binding EU obligations in regard to achieving good environmental standards in our seas. The Government, however, has failed to implement the required steps effectively. Linked to this is the failure of a number of our beaches to pass Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, standards. Our tourism sector draws heavily from clean oceans that sustain our nation. Our marine life depends on our clean oceans.
The roll-out of marine protected areas as part of a broader oceans Act must be an integral part of the process of meeting those obligations. A well-resourced and single Department-led response is critical to the success of any strategy to tackle the serious challenges our oceans face. Ireland has failed in its European and international obligations to protect 10% of its marine waters under Article 13 of the MSFD, the Aichi biodiversity targets, the UN sustainable development goals and the OSPAR Convention.Ireland was declared a whale and dolphin sanctuary in 1991, yet the incidence of whales and dolphins becoming beached has increased by 350% over the past ten years. A report by the Irish Wildlife Trust published this year shows that 48 indigenous species face extinction. Fossil fuel exploration using seismic testing has regularly occurred in Irish waters since 2013 and severely impacts on all marine life in the areas in which it is conducted. The Government should adopt measures to tackle our unsustainable production of plastic waste and microbeads, an issue addressed in previous Private Members' legislation. Micro-plastics cause entirely unnecessary pollution and have a negative environmental impact. Studies have shown that they can be ingested by marine animals causing physical and reproductive harm and toxic effects. There is evidence to suggest that micro-plastics have entered the human food chain but, thankfully, not yet in sufficient quantities to pose a risk to human health. These are all areas the Minister must address.
We, in Fianna Fáil, support the actions proposed in the motion debated in the Seanad in May to strengthen Ireland's role in protecting our natural ocean resources for future generations. An oceans Act must be introduced providing for the protection of 50% of Ireland's seas and ocean through an ecologically coherent network of diverse and significant marine protected areas, MPAs. Such legislation should contain mechanisms to identify designated high-quality MPAs and ensure they are managed with respect for sustainable livelihoods and their ecologically coherence, as part of a European network. The legislation should establish a consultation process that involves all key stakeholders from the areas of fisheries, recreational fisheries, tourism, energy, conservation and other relevant sectors. We need to ensure that every one of these sectors plays its part in protecting our seas and oceans.
A major public awareness campaign is also needed. As I have stated previously, awareness is one of the issues we need to address. In 2018, it is unacceptable that we must call on the Department to raise awareness, whether through educational channels or a body established by the Minister for this purpose. We need to ensure that schools and all other relevant bodies are aware of what is happening because this issue concerns our future. We all live on this earth together and we must, therefore, help future generations by ensuring we pass on a healthy planet to them because they will inherit the consequences of whatever decisions we make today. This is a long-term issue that will have a major impact on our health and the way we live our lives. We must ensure that legislation and planning in this area are appropriate. I know that the Minister of State will work to achieve this and that it will be a long process. I urge him to make sure the relevant bodies are properly consulted and all of them have their say.
I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. It is ironic that we are debating a marine spatial plan immediately after debating planning legislation. Perhaps if we had taken these statements first, we would not have spent so much time debating the planning Bill. I welcome the decision to produce a national marine plan as such a plan will be very important.
I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which met for three days in the past week. Yesterday, we had a meaningful debate on spatial planning. I raised with my counterparts from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales the importance of having a marine spatial plan. Many assembly members referred to collaboration between the Northern Ireland authorities and the authorities here. Collaboration is particularly important when one lives on an island. I am aware of the complexities of Northern Ireland politics and I know the Northern Ireland Assembly is not up and running. We must be mindful that we live on an island and that decisions affect the entire island, particularly the fishing community in the northern half of the country extending right up into Donegal. Discussions are needed on these issues. One of the features of the national planning framework is that it embraces the island of Ireland. Greater co-operation between the authorities in the North and South will be necessary. This does not need to be complex; just an understanding of what we are about and what we are trying to do.
I welcome the proposed introduction of a marine spatial plan for Ireland, which will act as a roadmap for future development. It will be the first time the country has had a marine spatial plan. It is important the plan is balanced and takes into account various views, specifically those of the people who work in the industry, including fisheries, tourism, transport, offshore renewable energy generation and oil and gas exploration. I live in the coastal town of Dún Laoghaire. Offshore exploration for gas conducted in the area beyond Dalkey Island was controversial and resulted in thousands of people attending public meetings. Offshore exploration is a sensitive matter, which is understandable. The public consultation highlighted the absence of a marine spatial plan.
The proposed marine spatial plan will be comprehensive and will refer to aquaculture, climate change, communities, health, culture, heritage, marine environment, biodiversity, transboundary issues and interactions with other jurisdictions. It will take a long time to address all these issues. We need to be mindful of seafood production, aquaculture, maritime transport and renewable energy. The marine area is highly diverse and I do not know how the Minister of State will deal with everything.
The Minister of State referred to Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework. Now that we have a national spatial plan for land-based planning, a marine spatial plan will be very important. The process of drawing up a marine spatial plan requires engagement and consultation with local communities and residents, public representative, regional authorities and executives. Their views must be taken into account.
I suggest that the Minister of State gives greater priority to the marine spatial plan on his Department's website. While some very good information is available on the website, it is hard to find. I suggest that he ask his officials to publish a piece about the plan on the website. I have read the information available on the website and I was very impressed with it. This information should be made more visible.
I ask the Minister of State to consider engaging with city and county councillors in the form of workshops. I often hear about the strategic planning committees, SPCs, in local authorities. I suggest the Minister of State write to the chairs of the planning SPCs in the 31 local authorities requesting that they make marine spatial planning a lead item on their agendas in due course in order that meaningful discussions take place on the issue. We have heard so much about local governance and devolving powers to local government. We now have an ideal opportunity to ask local authorities to facilitate in their county halls, which are public buildings that we own, meetings with officials and experts in the field. I would like to see more town hall meetings about issues. This issue is a good example of an area on which officials can engage in discussions with members of the public.
The fishing industry is concentrated in Donegal, the west and south. A large number of people are exercised about maritime activities, including marine leisure activities.
We need to discuss the policy on ports and the transfer of functions from port companies to local authorities, many of which are in a position to assume such responsibility. While they may be willing to do this work, they do not have adequate resources, funding or expertise to do so. In that regard, Dún Laoghaire Harbour, one of the best ports in Europe, springs to mind. Unfortunately, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, under port policy, assigned responsibility for the harbour to the local authority, which does not have the money or expertise to sustain or operate the port company.
I call for greater engagement on the plan. It is important that it is given a higher profile on the Department's website. I urge the Minister of State to start this process by arranging meetings and discussions. I do not doubt his commitment to this matter. It is important that we have a marine spatial plan. The key to success will be to have early engagement and consultation with all relevant sectors, from the fishing and aquaculture sector to leisure and sports interests. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck with the plan.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this critical debate, which follows on from our earlier discussion on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016. As an island nation, it is important that we place a great deal of significance on our plans to sustain the resources of our surrounding marine environment. As the Minister of State has acknowledged, much of the groundwork in this regard was done in 2012, when the Government of the day clearly stated its policy objectives in the Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth plan, which outlined the need to develop a national marine spatial plan. Six years have passed since then, however, and the 2014 EU spatial planning directive now obliges Ireland to develop its own spatial plan. That is why earlier this evening, I welcomed the amendments to the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 that set out clearly the legislative framework for a new marine spatial plan for this country. The Seanad will have a further opportunity tomorrow to engage with and debate the benefits of that framework.
I have to say we have not stood idly by. I note the presence in the Chamber of my colleague from County Waterford, Senator Grace O'Sullivan, who has a track record as an activist in the marine environment. I sincerely acknowledge that she brings great experience to the House by virtue of her efforts and activism over many years in identifying the threats to our marine environment. It behoves us as a country to put in place protections in areas like micro-plastics, the sustainability of the ecosystem and the various species that exist in the marine area surrounding Ireland.
We need to acknowledge the work that has been done by the Government. Many parties in this House opposed the establishment of Irish Water, which has made great progress by installing sustainable wastewater treatment systems around the country. My own county of Waterford now has four blue flag beaches - two in Dunmore East, one in Tramore and one in Ardmore. We did not have them before now because Irish Water was not in place. Since its establishment, Irish Water has invested in modern wastewater treatment systems. We are no longer pumping raw sewage into our beaches and harbours. We are now pumping out water that has been treated in wastewater systems. There needs to be greater recognition of such advancements. It is often not popular to mention Irish Water, but I think we should talk on the public record about the great work it is doing around the country. I acknowledge the progress it is making in improving the water quality in tributaries, waterways and streams. It is important to mention that treated water is being pumped out into the marine environment that we want to protect.
When we discussed the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 earlier, the Minister of State mentioned that he was taking the first legislative steps towards a new marine spatial strategy for this country. Various Senators have spoken about the importance of engagement and consultation. I remind the Minister of State that the fisheries local action groups, or FLAGs, comprise an excellent development network right around the coastal communities of Ireland. Local community volunteers are running these FLAGs which receive grant assistance from the Government as local initiatives. I think this network would be a great starting point for engagement with coastal communities. Many of those involved in the FLAGs are fishermen or have made their livelihoods from the marine environment. They have learned a lot from the past.
When we are speaking about the marine environment, we need to acknowledge that some of the practices of the past are no longer sustainable. I watched a very interesting Irish documentary on the various species that exist in the Atlantic Ocean. The increased awareness that results from such programmes being watched in living rooms around the country is of assistance as we seek to engage with communities and citizens on the marine spatial strategy. Another documentary I watched showed how former whaling factories in Australia, which were previously used for activities that threatened the future of whales as a species, are now used as conservation centres where stories are told to educate communities and families about how whales can be sustained. I think the populations are building again.
It is important to put policy, legislation and regulations in place to protect the ecosystems in our marine environment. The wealth of resources in that environment is also important. There are species that can be fished in a sustainable way to meet people's eating needs. The energy potential of our marine environment is also relevant in this context. We know about the wave and tidal energy projects that have been piloted. I would love to see many of them being advanced as more commercial energy generation initiatives. There have been many objections to wind farms in local communities. I believe there is great potential for offshore wind farms that can be built in a sustainable way to harness wind energy and transport it back onto the grid system in our country. The marine spatial plan will allow for coherent and sustainable planning in a vast area. I think Ireland has the second largest marine spatial planning area in the EU. Portugal has the largest such area. We have almost 500,000 sq. km. of marine space around our island. It is right for us to plan for that space in a sustainable way.
I have spoken about engagement and consultation. I have mentioned the network of FLAGs. Our schools and educational institutes are a rich resource for engaging with communities. I believe various Government Departments have a responsibility in this regard. As I have said, we are all responsible for the ecosystems in the oceans and seas around us. I understand that the indepth knowledge which is required for marine planning is probably very new to many people. I presume people with expertise in the Marine Institute and other bodies will be involved in this process. When local authorities and regional assemblies engage in terrestrial planning or land planning, they can call on the vast wealth of experience that has been built up by planners. I understand there are experts on this relatively new area in the Marine Institute. The Minister of State might tell the House whether he plans to bring in experts to help us to plan for our marine environment in a sustainable way.
I would like to make a suggestion that does not relate directly to the marine spatial plan but relates to the protection of the environment. There are initiatives for collecting farm plastics in this country. People are incentivised to collect farm plastics so they can be disposed of in a responsible way. I believe there is room for another initiative, perhaps led by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, that would involve the collection of plastics from our harbours, rivers and ports. The Government should consider the introduction of a type of grant scheme or initiative to incentivise people to collect plastics from bodies of water and thereby improve the environment in such areas. Of course we need to come up with other policies to lessen the impact of plastics. Senator Grace O'Sullivan proposed the Micro-plastic and Micro-bead Pollution Prevention Bill 2016 to deal with types of plastic found in products used for washing. I agree that we need to ban such products.
There is so much we can do. It is an exciting time for Ireland because we are leading the way in the area of marine spatial planning. We have an abundance of species and natural resources around our island. We need to adapt to the opportunities that are presenting themselves in a sustainable manner that is in the longer-term interests of the species we have mentioned and the citizens of Ireland as well.
I remind Senators that this debate will adjourn at 7 p.m. if it has not concluded by then. Depending on how long the remaining speakers take, we will have to adjourn today and the Minister of State will have to come back on another day to give his response.
I am delighted we are here to talk about the marine spatial strategy, which is one of my favourite subjects. I thank Senator Coffey for his remarks about my work with various environmental non-governmental organisations over the years and his recognition of the importance of marine spatial planning. When he mentioned that whales are migratory species, I was reminded that our duty of care and responsibility is not confined to our own nation of Ireland but extends internationally in line with our status as a member state of the EU and a member of the global community. One can see whales and the other species we have been discussing in Antarctica, if one has the pleasure of going there.
Equally, they can be seen off the Irish coast. We are talking here about the great marine space. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Coffey that this is a tremendously exciting time for Ireland.We have a significant opportunity to recognise the value of the biodiversity around our coast in terms of climate change. Seaweed is a sequester of carbon. I do not like the word "harness" but how will we look at it? How will we mind our natural marine resources for the State and for the people? I refer to the recent issue of Bantry Bay and the mechanical harvesting of seaweed. I am not opposed to the development of technology and mechanics, but I am opposed to systems that lead to the unsustainability of our natural environment. The people of Bantry have put up a fight against it and the matter has gone to the courts. I know the Minister has been very involved. We may take action and recognise along the way that we are on the wrong path and we need to reflect, review and reassess and, therefore, change course. That happens. It is a strong Government or person who can do that.
I had the pleasure of being on Lough Melvin in County Leitrim this weekend. I surfed on Rossnowlagh beach, where I had surfed back in the 1980s. I had the pleasure of standing under a waterfall with a group of women who are involved in ocean development, Dr. Easkey Britton and Dr. Ruth Brennan, Irish people who have so much to contribute to this debate. I will be bringing them to the Minister's attention to ensure that we have the best of expertise. Senator Coffey is right, when one is dealing with terrestrial planning, one looks to the local authorities, however, with marine planning, do whom do we look? I would like to hear the Minister's comments on the Marine Institute and the different agencies around the coast, particularly the community fisheries. There is a necessity to have stakeholder involvement. We need the creativity of fishermen and small farmers.
On the issue of plastic in our oceans, I had a conversation recently with a heritage fisherman in Cheekpoint, County Waterford. Mr. Sean Doherty had the idea that if we put nets on the weirs, which are 500 years old, they would catch plastic. One can use the weirs, an old system that has a heritage value which needs to be maintained not only for natural resources of catching fish but also for other purposes. That is what I want to see for the marine environment in Ireland. I want to see significant innovation and a stop to practices that are causing a bad effect on climate change. I will nail it. It is the fossil fuels exploration and exploitation, which is leading us on the road to nowhere. As Senator Coffey stated, we have every opportunity with renewables. The offshore wind turbines act as marine protected areas, because the base of the structure attracts a wildlife habitat. If there is a no-go zone around them, there is a real benefit in terms of fish nurseries and fish stocks. The species will leave the area and the fishermen can really profit from the spillover of the marine life.
It is an exciting time. It is exciting for health, wellness, tourism, biodiversity and climate change. I embrace the process, albeit a little bit late in the day in respect of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008. We need to get on with it, but let us try to get it right. We are an island nation. We are strategically important in European terms because of our marine environment. We need to work the system in the European Union to give us the recognition of an island nation. Let us embrace our marine spatial environment and plan its future well for all the people of the island.
Beidh mé gasta. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus gabhaim buíochas leis.
Our offshore environment is an immense resource. We have one of the largest coastlines in the European Union, as Senator Coffey mentioned. At present this resource is completely under utilised in terms of what it could fulfil. Other states with much less sea area are miles ahead of us.
Taking in the exclusive economic zone which the State is entitled to develop, the territory available extends 200 miles out to sea. In terms of renewable energy, the potential alone of offshore development presents immense opportunity, but it is virtually non-existent at present. We have one off-shore wind farm. We have a very convoluted planning regime for offshore projects, which must go through multiple consent bodies and we have little drive to change this. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment produced a document back in 2014, the Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan, which outlines some of the potential in this State in terms of offshore wind, tidal and wave energy that could be supplying the State with clean renewable energy and increasing our security of supply. In particular, there are much more possibilities in offshore wind than onshore wind. With onshore wind, we do not have communities onboard to develop it. Other states have large community involvement. I acknowledge that the Minister referenced this in his contribution and is seeking to go some way to address it. There has been no movement on the document overall since 2014.
Our renewable energy outlook has been one dimensional and short-sighted. Planned reform for offshore projects has been promised but not delivered. We only have the heads of the maritime area and foreshore (amendment) Bill. The heads have been approved since 2015, but we are simply not taking the area seriously. We see a piecemeal approach, with an insertion into the planning and development Bill, which does these very complex processes no justice at all.
Scotland, with a similar population to this State has extensively developed its offshore resources. It has many offshore wind projects, including the world's first floating offshore wind farm. It has also streamlined its offshore consent process through the body, Marine Scotland. There are other examples in Denmark and Germany, which have much less coastline and from which we could learn. We should be streets ahead of where we are.
We have not developed the offshore resources. It beggars belief that there is still no movement on this issue. All developments must be balanced against the highest environmental protection measures being put in place. What offshore development has been conducted has been in fossil fuel extraction and we are all aware of the poor deal this State has got from it - one of the worst deals in the world.
I am conscious of the time and I wish to give the Minister the opportunity to respond to my colleagues and me.