In less than nine months from now, or potentially even sooner, an Assembly election will be announced, ending what has been a turbulent mandate for the political parties, people and nature of Northern Ireland. 

In 2016, 90 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) were elected to govern Northern Ireland, at least partially on the basis of their policy priorities, as signposted in manifestos, radio interrogations and various social media newsfeeds. Everything from health service reform, road and infrastructure upgrades, education overhaul and addressing environmental issues such as biodiversity decline and climate change, were mentioned. 

However, in early 2017, Stormont collapsed, and for more than 1000 days it remained closed to the people and important policy issues. Meanwhile, studies, reports, and investigations of all kindsi,ii,iii confirmed climate change risks were greater than ever, and that despite our best efforts, the state of nature in Northern Ireland continued to declineiv. In the marine environment, a withering reportv assessed UK’s progress towards achieving ‘Good Environmental Status‘ for our seas and laid bare our almost total failure to adequately protect marine species, habitats and ecosystems.  

School children march on parliament buildings backing the joint NIMTF, RSPB NI, and Ulster Wildlife campaign for a NI marine bill in 2012 (c)RSPB NI

Our seas produce half of the air we breathe. They sequester and store an incredible 31% vi of human-produced carbon dioxide each year. In the UK they are home to half of our breath-taking array of habitats and species – many of which are essential nursery areas for important plants and animals.

There is no longer any debate. To address the twin biodiversity and climate emergencies, political parties and candidates must put the protection, conservation and restoration of Northern Ireland’s seas front and centre of their election manifestos.

Without bold and immediate action, we put our most vulnerable and threatened wildlife, as well as the very ecosystem services society relies on so heavily for survival, further in jeopardy. 

Beadlet anemone hiding in a rockpool along the rugged coastline of Cushendall, Co. Antrim. (c)Donal Griffin

The Northern Ireland Marine Task Force are open and keen to talk to all political parties and candidates about the inclusion of marine recovery in their election manifestos, and have identified four priority areas which if addressed with the right level of ambition and political will, can turn the fate of our seas around. 

  1.  Recovering biodiversity as indicated by ‘Good Environmental Status’ for all our seas, as well as an effectively managed Marine Protected Area network 
  2.  Sustainable fisheries as indicated by all NI fisheries operating within scientific advice and having a low impact on the wider environment 
  3.  Sustainable development at sea as indicated by implementation of an ecosystem-based marine spatial plan for NI which puts the environment at the centre of decision making 
  4.  Blue climate action as indicated by the adequate protection and restoration of our most valuable blue carbon habitats and species

The time to act is now, and it looks increasingly likely that Northern Ireland will see its first ever Climate Change Bill passed with associated commitments to net-zero carbon emissions.  This is an encouraging sign that politicians in Northern Ireland are awake to the global issues facing its people as well as the important local issues too.

However, with an election on the cards, the question remains. Will the next tranche of party manifestos speak out and shout any louder for our marine environment?  

By Donal Griffin, Northern Ireland Marine Task Force officer.

[i] IPCC Summary Report for Policy Makers (2019)

[ii] IPCC Summary report for Policy Makers (2021)

[iii] Gatusso et al., (2019) Ocean Solutions to Address Climate Change and Its Effects on Marine Ecosystems

[iv] State of Nature. A Summary for Northern Ireland (2019)

[v] Marine strategy part one: UK updated assessment and Good Environmental Status [v1] Gruber et al., (2019) The oceanic sink for anthropogenic CO2 from 1994 to 2007