Threats Revealed to the Marine Environment and Economy

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has launched a milestone report on the effects of climate change on Ireland’s marine ecosystems. The document, entitled ‘Irish Ocean Climate and Ecosystem Status Report 2009’, details a number of significant observations recorded in recent years including: increases in sea surface temperature, increased wave heights off the south west coast and an increase in the number of warm water species in Irish waters, ranging from microscopic plankton to swarms of jellyfish. The report is one of three projects funded as part of the Marine NDP Research Programme (Sea Change) under the Environmental Policy Research Measure.

One key finding of the report is that increases of sea surface temperature of 0.6 C per decade have been taking place since 1994, which are unprecedented in the past 150 years. This in turn is linked to an increase in microscopic plants and animals, along with species of jellyfish. Further up the food chain, increased numbers of most warm water fish species have been observed in Irish waters, along with sightings of exotic species such as snake pipefish. Declines in number of seabirds have also been observed which may have a climate link.

“Ireland is strategically placed to play a key role in monitoring ocean-induced changes in our climate and environment,” says Dr Peter Heffernan, chief executive of the Marine Institute. “Geographically the warm southern waters of the Atlantic drift come closer to Ireland than any other country in Europe, where they merge with the cooler northern waters off the coasts of Galway and Mayo. It is here that the predicted biological shifts in marine species diversity or abundance are most likely to occur, making Ireland an ideal laboratory for the study of marine climate change.”

In the long term, the Irish Ocean Climate and Ecosystem Status Report 2009 report predicts that global mean sea level may rise by up to 0.88 m by 2100. This, when combined with the increase in wave heights of 0.8 m that have already been observed off southwest Ireland, could lead to an increased threat of coastal erosion and flooding.

Ocean Acidification – An Emerging Threat

A second report that reviews the effect of ocean acidification in Irish waters – ‘Ocean Acidification: An Emerging Threat to our Marine Environment – 2010’ – has also been completed. This highlights the growing threat to marine life and fragile ecosystems around the coast as a direct consequence of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere.

The report recommends that a nationally coordinated multidisciplinary marine climate change and ecosystem monitoring programme be established that will enable better evaluations to be made of the threats posed to the marine environment and economy by ocean acidification. It emphasises closer links between climate change, ocean acidification and environmental policy development especially in relation to mitigation strategies to reduce carbon emissions.

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