It is widely accepted that marine habitats and species are being destroyed, degraded and disturbed by human activity in the coastal zone.
The recently published Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (May 2019), a global level assessment of changes in Earth’s biodiversity over the past 50 years, highlights the urgency of biodiversity and habitat protection.
The World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report, 2018 reveals that humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.
Large scale offshore wind farms represent unprecedented industrial development at sea. Many environmentalists are questioning whether such extensive industrialisation of the ocean can be justified at a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect our natural resources and limit man’s footprint on the planet. The cumulative impacts of large scale development on sensitive habitats in near shore zones, as permitted off Ireland’s east coast, have not been studied because no other country in the world has constructed, or indeed permitted, such development.
Ireland's National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021 states: 'The current state of Ireland’s marine environment is highlighted in Ireland’s reports on the Habitats Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) in 2013. Of the marine habitats assessed under the Habitats Directive, only sandbanks and sea caves were assessed as being in ‘favourable’ status. Estuaries, tidal mudflats, large shallow inlets and bays were assessed as being in ‘inadequate’ status. Reefs (in particular deep-water reefs) and lagoons were in ‘bad’ status'. The 2019 EU Conservation Assessment Report confirms the 'favourable' status of sandbanks, but confirms the threat to their integrity posed by offshore windfam development.
Objectives of the Biodiversity Action Plan include: development and implementation of a Marine Spatial Plan for Ireland, implementation of measures to achieve good ecological and environmental status of marine and coastal habitats as required by the Habitats, Directive, Water Framework Directive and Marine Strategy Framework Directive and in line with the OSPAR Convention, and implementation of OSPAR recommendations on Habitats and Species.
“Climate has grabbed the headlines but the loss of biodiversity is a global threat that is just as serious and needs to be faced with the same urgency. In one crucial way it is more worrying since there is no way to reverse extinction ... Our climate mitigation policies should not come at the expense of biodiversity. We have very important targets to achieve for renewable energies but we need to be careful about how and where they can be developed”.
EU Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas (2008)
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Ireland is a party, aims to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020, i.e. conservation of ecosystems, habitats and species, both inside and outside protected areas. Under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, environmental protection is an integral part of all EU policies. The European Commission estimated (2015) that the Natura 2000 network of protected habitats and species delivers benefits worth between €200 and €300 billion per year, set against annual management costs estimated at €5.8 billion.
A priority objective of the 2013 "General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet", is to 'protect, conserve and enhance the Union’s natural capital'.
Habitats and Birds Directives
Europe’s biodiversity is primarily protected by two key pieces of legislation, The Habitats Directive and Wild Birds Directive. The Habitats Directive 92/43/EC obliges member state to maintain a number of designated habitat types and species at favourable status at selected sites agreed with the Commission. Together with sites important for bird conservation under the Birds Directive, the combined network of sites become part of Natura 2000, the biggest ecological network in the world.
In Ireland, the protection of marine biodiversity lags behind many other EU countries due to delays in identifying and designating Natura 2000 sites for protection and even longer delays in assessing their status and putting in place enforceable management plans.
With large-scale offshore wind farm development proposed by developers on protected shallow sandbanks and adjoining SPAs and SACs off Ireland’s east coast, these delays are a matter of serious concern. Reports (Dwyer, 2000 & Patrick Crushell, 2002) published following cooperation between a number of Irish environmental NGOs who form the NGO Special Area of Conservation Shadow List lobby group concluded that the number of sandbanks which had been designated was insufficient. They state: 'A further 10 sandbanks are proposed by the Irish NGOs to more adequately reflect the distribution and importance of this currently under represented habitat in Ireland. These were Arklow Bank, Blackwater Bank, Bray Bank, Broadhaven Bay, Glassgorman Banks, Kish Bank, Lough Swilly, Lucifer Bank, Moneyweights Banks, Mullet/Blacksod Bay.
The EU Guidance Document on Wind Energy Development and Natura 2000 (March 2010) provides guidance on how best to ensure that wind energy developments are compatible with the Habitats and Birds Directives.
On the subject of the wind energy expansion, necessary to meet the EU’s target for renewable energy (20% of Europe’s total energy production by 2020), the document states “it will be important to ensure that this expansion is sustainable in all respects and is achieved without unnecessary damage to the natural environment and Europe’s natural heritage”.
“Evidence to date shows that although wind farms are much less of a danger to biodiversity than conventional power generation installations, poorly sited or designed wind farms can pose a significant threat to some vulnerable species and habitats, such as certain types of birds, bats and marine mammals and fragile habitat types like blanket bogs, all of which are protected under the Habitats and Birds Directive in view of their poor conservation status".
Sea bird populations throughout the world are increasingly under threat from human activities. Industrial developments, large scale fisheries, shipping, pollution and the effects of climate change are damaging the marine ecosystem. There is growing international awareness of the urgent need to protect seabirds and the sites and habitats on which they depend.
Seabirds are the very essence of nature on the Island of Ireland – sociable, beautiful, resilient but increasingly vulnerable. Under The Foreshore Act 1933, foreshore leases have been granted for large scale offshore wind farm development in Irish coastal waters before the identification, assessment and designation of offshore marine areas for EU Natura 2000 sites has been completed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Such sites include Special Protection Areas for birds, (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for conservation of habitats and other species – such as cetaceans.
Most of the offshore wind farms proposed by developers are on shallow east coast sandbanks, a marine habitat listed for protection by the EU Habitats Directive, because of importance to birds and marine wildlife.
The Department of Environment Food & Rural Affairs, UK, produced a report “Nature Conservation Guidance on Offshore Wind Farm Development" - A guidance note on the implications of the EC Wild Birds and Habitats Directive for developers undertaking offshore wind farm development in March 2005.
This document stated that the potential impacts on birds can be divided into five categories:
- habitat loss
- loss of food resources
- barrier effects
- collision mortality
"All of these potential impacts are likely to be more significant and to have a greater effect on populations where several wind farms are proposed in the same area."
"It is therefore important to undertake assessments of the potential cumulative effects of all proposed wind farms where they are likely to affect the same species or populations of birds.”
Cumulative impact assessment is particularly important for Ireland given the inadequate regulatory regime and developer-led focus on Ireland’s east coast shallow sandbanks.
BirdWatch Ireland has been at the forefront of protecting and monitoring our seabirds for the past 40 years. It has run specific campaign to “Save our Seabirds” in recognition of the growing threats confronting our seabird population. Dr Steve Newton, Senior Conservation Officer (Seabirds) stated “Ireland’s location on the Atlantic edge of Europe ensures we have a much richer maritime biodiversity than most other European countries…with our long length of coastline, large number of islands and vast acreage of territorial waters, we are internationally important for a wide range of seabirds.”
“Although the Irish Sea is regarded as a shallow-shelf sea, most seabirds generally forage in the shallower parts. This is why the ‘banks' running down the east coast of Ireland (Kish, Codling, Arklow, Blackwater etc.) are so important."
“These shallow banks are currently the key target area for offshore wind farm development. In line with best international practice, no development should be permitted on these banks until a Strategic Environmental Assessment has been carried out and a well-planned management system for the ecosystem introduced.”
"We need to proceed cautiously if we are to help protect the planet via harnessing renewable energy in our offshore environment.”
In the 2019 Birdwatch Report Trialling a Seabird Sensitivity Mapping Tool for Marine Renewable Energy Developments in Ireland, the author states 'The main potential impacts of MRE devices on seabirds are mortality by collision, disturbance and displacement,barrier effects and habitat loss. Because they are long-lived and with a low annual reproductive output, impacts on seabirds may not become apparent for several years'.
BirdLife International, operating in over 100 countries worldwide, is the leading global authority on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting birdlife.
Three Birdlife Partners - DOF, NABU and Vogelbescherming Nederland - operating in Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands respectively, have recently issued a report The Wadden Sea – A Vision for the Conservation of a Natural Heritage calling for urgent action to protect the Wadden Sea one of N. Europe’s key bird areas.
The report draws attention to industrial developments threatening sea birds and urges governments to “Make a Choice for Birds“, stating:
“The deterioration of the Wadden Sea demands real choices. Not just on paper but also in daily practice and at local level, where the economy often wins out over the environment. Conservation needs clear and strict rules that are upheld in actual practice. Many recent decisions such as those in favour of wind farms, extension of harbours and oil and gas extraction – go against the interests of nature. Conservation also means good education of local people and tourists so that everyone realises how unique the wildlife of the Wadden Sea is. Politicians, local people and tourists should be made proud of its rich birdlife. It is important to show the benefits – including the economic benefits- of nature and birds”.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) is the global voice for the protection of whales, dolphins and their environment.
Mark Simmonds, WDCS's Director of Science, has expressed concerns about plans for the expansion of marine wind farms in UK waters.
“The potential threats from wind farms in the marine environment include the loud noise associated with their construction (especially pile driving); the noise and disturbance associated with their operation (including boat trips for maintenance) and the ways in which their presence may change marine habitats”.
"Whilst we are highly concerned about climate change and supportive of the development of renewable energy sources, we are also aware that wind farms may impact dolphins, porpoises and whales and that this needs to be very urgently addressed. The existing system of protection is poor and failing and to speed ahead with marine wind farms in this way shows a lack of appreciation for marine nature conservation and marine wildlife."
A WDCS paper, Marine Renewable Energy and Cetaceans, Dolmen et al , 2007 (based on Dolmen et al, 2003) lists the activities associated with wind farm development, which are of particular importance to cetaceans and identifies research and monitoring needs to address important knowledge gaps.
The impacts of offshore wind farms and other marine renewables on Irish coastal ecology are yet to be investigated, and there is still much to learn about the ways in which whales, dolphins and porpoises are using the waters around Ireland. The Irish Whale & Dolphin Group is dedicated to the conservation of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). In 2009 its annual conference was devoted to the harbour porpoise, outlining the current state of knowledge on this small cetacean and addressing, inter alia, possible threats posed by offshore renewables. The harbour porpoise is probably the most abundant and widespread cetacean species in Irish waters. It is listed on Annex ll of the EU Habitats Directive and member states are thus required to designate Special Areas of Conservation to protect important populations and habitats. Identifying important sites with high concentrations is constrained by lack of information on their distribution and abundance.
CONSERVATION PLAN FOR IRISH CETACEANS
The National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Environment Heritage and Local Government has drafted an Action Plan for the Conservation of Irish Cetaceans. The plan has been prepared as part of the requirement under Article 12 of the 1992 EC Habitats Directive (92/43/EC) to establish a strict protection regime for all cetaceans in the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone. Coastal Concern Alliance Submission to this consultation is available here. See also Proceedings of the 2nd IWDG International Whale Conference: Muc Mhara – Ireland’s smallest Whale
A PROTECTED HABITAT
“Sandbanks which are slightly covered by the sea water at all times” are an important marine habitat listed for protection in Annex l of the EU Habitats Directive. Such sandbanks are often important nursery areas for fish and consequently can provide key feeding and resting grounds for seabirds. In addition, it is thought that these sandbanks provide particularly rich feeding grounds for cetaceans such as harbour porpoises and dolphins which are relatively abundant in Irish waters. The near-shore banks situated off the east coast of Ireland are known to play an important role in coastal hydrodynamics. The 2007 EU Conservation Assessment Report stated 'This erosion of coastal sediments is partially arrested by a supply of sediments from offshore banks and underlies the importance of the banks in sediment transport to shores along the east coast of Ireland'. Ireland's east coast is one of those known to be most vulnerable to coastal erosion.
Unfortunately these wildlife-rich, functional sandbanks have also been a key target for offshore wind farm developers in Ireland because the relatively shallow waters cuts the cost of construction and maintenance.
Dundalk Bay SAC and SPA and almost all the sandbanks on Ireland’s east coast have been claimed on “a first come first served basis” by developers seeking foreshore leases for extensive wind farm development. No Strategic Environmental Assessment was carried out by the Irish authorities to assess cumulative impact before developers were allowed to claim these extensive sites. In 2000 and 2002 reports prepared on behalf of Irish NGOs concerned with conservation, An Taisce, Birdwatch Ireland, Irish Wildlife Trust, Coastwatch and the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council, recommended the designation as Natura 2000 sites of 10 additional sandbank habitats including many of those targeted for wind farm development close to Ireland's east coast (Dwyer, 2000, SACs in Ireland. NGO Review, Crushell 2002).
The Conservation Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species is assessed every six years. In Conservation Status Assessment Report -Sandbanks Slightly Covered by Seawater at all Times (2008). National Parks & Wildlife Service gives an overview of the importance of sandbanks in Irish waters and the threats to their conservation.
The Report set out a number of important points:
1. HABITAT RANGE
“The range has been calculated to encompass 21 sites and cover an area of 211km². The greatest resource of sandbanks is found in the Irish Sea. These banks are, from north to south: Bennet, Burford, Kish, Frazer, Bray, Codling, India , Arklow, Seven Fathom Bank, Glassgorman, Rusk, Blackwater, Lucifer, Long Holdens banks”.
2. CONSERVATION STATUS OF HABITAT AREA
“There is no evidence of a decline in the area of sandbanks since the Directive came into force. The current area is considered sufficient to ensure the long term survival of the habitat and is therefore assessed as Favourable in the absence of any significant habitat reduction events. (e.g. aggregate extraction, wind farm development)”
3. STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION
“Soft glacial coastal sediments have little resistance to wave and hydrodynamic action and on the Eastern seaboard of Ireland are slowly eroding on a geological time scale. …. The erosion of coastal sediments is partially arrested by a supply of sediments from offshore banks in deep water and underlies the importance of the banks in sediment transport to shores along the east coast of Ireland”
4. TYPICAL SPECIES
- “Shallow sandy sediments are often important nursery areas for fish and consequently can provide feeding grounds for seabirds (especially puffins, guillemots, and razorbills and sea duck"
- “An EIS over the Arklow Bank has shown that there is a far greater avian diversity (25 -30 species) over these shallow waters than surrounding areas (5-10 species) and has been shown to be important for feeding and resting (Fehily Timoney & Co 2001). Therefore these banks are also likely to represent an important feeding area for diving bird species”.
- “A survey undertaken on the habitat of terns in the Irish Sea showed that the Kish Bank had significant numbers of auks (guillemots, razorbills etc) and terns in the area. Roseate, Common and Arctic Terns were recorded roosting on the Kish Lighthouse and peaked in numbers during late August and early September (Newton & Crowe 2000). The presence of these bird species is indicative of feeding resources in the area”
- “Cetaceans are relatively abundant in Irish coastal waters (IWDG 2004) and it is likely that there are greater feeding resources over sandbanks due to the hydrodynamic effects than in surrounding waters. The area where greatest cetacean recording effort has been concentrated on sandbanks within Irish waters has shown a significant and consistent concentration of bottlenose dolphins”.
5. IMPACTS AND THREATS
- “Aggregate Extraction": The impacts of aggregate extraction will be high should this take place on sandbanks in the future. Currently there is no aggregate extraction from Irish sandbanks.
- Oil and Coal Extraction: Interest has been expressed in this activity for one sandbank.
- Construction and Maintenance of Windfarms. The installation of turbines will result in some loss of habitat and the presence of hard structures is likely to change the biodiversity of the banks. To date only one wind farm has been constructed at the north end of the Ark low Bank. However interest has been expressed in developing wind farms on most of the east coast banks and licenses have been granted for exploration prior to development”.
6. OVERALL 2007 ASSESSMENT: UNFAVOURABLE – INADEQUATE
- “From the large number of sandbanks that have been investigated for their suitability for wind farms and their potential as sites for aggregate extraction, the future prospects are considered Unfavourable – Inadequate”
- Nationally the overall conservation status of the habitat “sandbanks covered by water at all times” is Unfavourable - Inadequate.
Conservation Status of Species and habitats was re-assessed in 2013.
As was the case in 2007, the Current Conservation Status of east coast sandbanks was assessed as Favourable. However, in contrast to 2007, the Future Prospects and Overall Conservation Status was also stated to be Favourable.
The change in status since 2007 was attributed to two factors: (1) the protection that would be afforded to sandbank habitats by implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and (2) the completion of SEA with mitigation for developments of offshore renewable energy sector. (1) Unfortunately Ireland has not completed the survey and designation process for Natura 2000 sites required to comply with the MSFD. Only two additional sandbanks, rather than the ten proposed, have been designated. (2) In 2010, Minister Eamon Ryan published a Draft Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan. In the Environmental Report he stated that the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the plan “should not influence or affect the processing of existing Foreshore Lease applications”. This statement effectively removed from consideration in the SEA 263Km2 of sensitive habitat on which Foreshore Leases for wind farm development had been progressed on Ireland's east coast.
However, the Natura Impact Statement of the Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan (2011) did assess the potential impact of wind farm development on Annexe 1-listed Habitats, ‘sandbanks slightly covered by seawater at all times’ and concluded that ‘even with the implementation of appropriate mitigation there is still a medium risk of Likely Significant Effect occurring as a result of damage to or loss of habitats from the installation of offshore renewable energy developments in areas where sensitive habitats are present’.
The 2013 conclusion that the Overall Conservation Status was Favourable is not supported by these facts.
In 2019, Conservation Status of EU protected habitats & species was re-assessed by National Parks and Wildlife. This assessment concluded that both the Current Conservation Status and Future Prospects of the sandbanks were Favourable. However, the information contained in the Report contradicts this conclusion.
Two threats are discussed. The Report states ‘The development of windfarms on shallow sandbanks has the potential to lead to an indirect impact on the habitat.’ It is difficult to understand the use of the word ‘indirect’ in this statement. Construction of currently proposed windfarms would require driving hundreds of steel monopiles into the sea floor along the sandbanks by means of specialist hydraulic rams, a process known to threaten marine wildlife and damage coastal habitats (Marine Conservation Society, 2013).
The Report also refers to the potential threat from dredging (fisheries). Dredging, which was required to clear accumulated sand from the bases of the seven small wind turbines on the Arklow Bank, was permitted in 2017. The Dumping at Sea permit for this activity was awarded by the EPA without any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Given that dredging is known to be an activity that damages the seabed, the failure to carry out an EIA is clearly out of line with best environmental practice, as stated by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.