Legislation covering marine protected areas (MPAs) is "almost complete" and will set an ambition for 30% of Irish waters to be designated, Heritage Minister Malcolm Noonan has said.
Mr Noonan was speaking after a report from a broad coalition of Irish environmental groups found that a mere 2.1% were MPAs, compared to 10% on average in the EU, and far below the European Commission's ambition of 30% for each nation by 2030.
The EU's Biodiversity Strategy aims for 30% of the bloc's marine waters deemed protected by 2030, after setting a 10% for 2018 — showing just how far Ireland must go to reach the target.
Legislation on MPAs has been in the pipeline for months, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin telling the Dáil in March that it could not be rushed.
"We have to consult with all of the stakeholders because otherwise deputies will be back in with me saying not to do it here or there for various reasons," Mr Martin said.
Marine protected areas are those in which human activities are managed, or even forbidden, in order to protect biodiversity, which is going through an unprecedented crisis according to global experts.
The 2.1% of Irish coastal and offshore areas must must increase 18-fold — up to 36% — in order to restore and enhance endangered species such as sharks, puffins, and even blue whales, according to the report from Fair Seas.
The Fair Seas report says that it is actually possible to increase the level to 36%, and that doing so would not only help restore biodiversity, but also act as vast carbon stores in the climate change crisis.
Fair Seas, which includes groups such as the Irish Wildlife Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, Coastwatch, and Friends of the Irish Environment, identified areas around the coast based on the geographic distributions of 15 species of whales and dolphins; 38 species of seabirds, and 16 species of sharks, skates, and rays.
Its report identified 16 areas of interest such as Galway Bay and Islands; Kenmare to Loop Head, and the Celtic Sea off the Cork coast as far as the English southwest.
According to data from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), some two-thirds of habitats along Irish coasts are in unfavourable condition, with up to 90% decline in species such as porbeagle and angel sharks.
Fair Seas said the areas identified in its report are home to critically endangered sharks, seabird colonies, and animals threatened with extinction such as Atlantic puffins and blue whales who rely on them for feeding and breeding.
Speaking to the, Mr Noonan said his department would meet with Fair Seas "shortly", adding that their assessment was "correct".
First drafts of the bill legislating for MPAs are "already almost completed", Mr Noonan said.
"We know that through our public consultation that there has been overwhelming support for this initiative," Mr Noonan said.
"We're also saying MPAs don't exist in isolation — they can exist with fishing communities and with other marine interests.
"They will require significant amounts of additional resources to ensure we can do it in a way that is effective, that the measures that are there to protect MPAs are achievable as well."