Ireland has an over 7000 km long indented and amazingly variable coastline. Most of the shore is natural and tides can move high up into estuaries. Rocks and soft boulder sea banks erode, dune faces and sand banks shift. Changing water depth, exposure, temperatures and salinity provide unique habitat mosaics even within a given bay. Inshore waters not only support a rich diversity of life, but also an enormous biomass.
Earliest archaeological remains show how man dipped into the riches of the sea. Shell middens and ancient fish traps highlight the importance for food. Old harbours are reminders of transport and fishing. Place names like ‘Oyster Point’ tell of important species which may now be regionally extinct.
Today almost everyone in Ireland either lives in the coastal zone or visits it at least once a year. What attracts people? A visitor might highlight the beauty and natural features or seashell diversity. Many jobs depend directly or indirectly on our coast, its clean bathing waters and seafood.
Wise use of common resources is challenging as the failure to conserve our fish stocks has shown. Most problems have arisen due to unwise and unsustainable use of land and sea. Our coastal land use has shifted from extensive with many small coastal wetlands to more housing, hard infrastructure, intensive agriculture and golf. Wetlands which formed natural buffers to soil loss and pollution entering the sea have been drained or infilled. While today most major towns have sewage treatment plants, there are more small diffuse sources of potential pollution, which combined with less wetland and scrub buffer, result in high nutrient enrichment and pollution risk. Coastal water uses which depend on water quality like shellfish harvesting are suffering. Climate change is likely to exacerbate our coastal vulnerability and heighten the need for better pollution control, more careful planning and wetland restoration.
Our excellent wind, wave and tidal resources and fast developing renewable technology will bring unprecedented potential and threat to our coastal zone. Looking into the future, more informed public participation, full implementation and enforcement of law - including the Water Framework Directive and EU Marine Strategy Directive - as well as reform of common fisheries policy should bring wiser and more transparent use of our coast and estuaries and with it, recovery of damaged areas.