The first 2023 IOLN regional meeting in Belfast brought together an enthusiastic cross-border community of ocean champions

The first of the series of regional meetings organised in 2023 by the Secretariat to bring together the IOLN members and other local ocean literacy stakeholders was held on the 29th of March in the Senate Room of Queen’s University Belfast from 10am to 4pm. Some pictures taken during the meeting are shown at the bottom of this blog piece.

Besides the members of the Secretariat Noirin Burke and Maria Vittoria Marra, the meeting saw the participation of 15 enthusiastic attendees from Northern Ireland and Donegal who shared ideas and plans for future collaborations in the Ulster province. Also, a number of engaging talks were given by the invited speakers about the very cutting-edge and diversified ocean literacy work they are involved in.

The first speaker of the day was Heather Ritchie (Ulster University). Heather is a lecturer in Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) and in her presentation she focused on the transboundary issues of MSP in the Irish Sea, the timelines for legislation and the complexities involved. She also gave an overview of the European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF) project carried out for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) about transboundary MSP in the context of biodiversity crisis, climate emergency and post-BREXIT, and finally she provided details of the Irish chapter of the Marine Social Sciences Network that people can connect with.

Donal Griffin, Marine Policy Officer at Fair Seas Ireland, spoke about the Fair Seas Campaign in support of the achievement of 30% of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Ireland by 2030, the timeline for Ireland new MPA’s legislation and the challenges and opportunities involved. Donal used the hashtag #oceanoptimistic to stress that, in spite of all the drawbacks, Ireland has never been in a better position to live up to the letter and spirit of its 30×30 commitments to protect nature at sea. Finally, Donal remembered the attendees about the forthcoming Fair Seas Conference which will be held in Cork on World Ocean Day this year.

Heidi McIlvenny (Ulster Wildlife/Queen’s University Belfast) talked about the work she carried out during her time as Marine Conservation Manager at Ulster University before starting, just recently, a PhD project on seagrass in Queen’s University Belfast. Heidi focused in particular on the Sea Deep initiative aimed at protecting the local species of sharks and rays in collaboration with sea anglers and coastal communities via a tagging programme and egg case hunts. In this context, Heidi also shared the six steps of community organising followed by Ulster Wildlife to empower people and make their voices heard, and how they have developed a new strategy to 2030 to support this mission.

David McCann spoke on behalf of The Sea Collective, which he set up and runs with his wife Cat. The Sea Collective is a social enterprise based in Gaoth Dobhair (Co. Donegal) which they have started in 2022 to celebrate our shared ocean heritage and re-energise our bond with the ocean. David first described the ocean literacy work that himself and Cat carried out in Borneo for 10 years and brought to the development of The Sea Collective, then he spoke about all the initiatives carried out so far in Ireland both with schools and adult groups as well as the forthcoming marine citizen science workshops for TY students, youth clubs, summer camps and community groups to enhance knowledge and skills.

Donnchadh Kindlon (ERINN) described the EmpowerUs project, which will run for 3 years from October 2022 with the aim to support coastal communities in their transition to becoming more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. The project consortium includes 16 partners in nine countries and six Transition Coastal Labs (TCLs) which will focus on a local challenge and work with coastal communities to enhance ocean literacy and stakeholder capacity. The TCL in Ireland is based in Connemara and will look at the growth of the blue economy and tourism of the Wild Atlantic Way. All the stories gathered from the different TCLs will be illustrated online on an interactive StoryMap as legacy of the project.

Christine Morrow (Queen’s University Belfast) presented the work she has been involved in to take all the footages and data from the SeaRover expeditions and create a database online that everyone can access. Christine’s talk showcased the range of species and habitats that have been identified thanks to this initiative in the Irish deep ocean and how this information can feed the current development of the MPA legislation. The prototype website can be accessed following this link. The website has an enormous amount of content and features including videos and dive summaries, species lists, notes on highlights, and information on pressures on the dive sites, such as fishing gear and marine litter. 

The final talk was given by Stuart Barr (DAERA) who presented the preliminary results of the recently released ‘Survey on Ocean Literacy in Northern Ireland‘, which represents the last part of a larger project aimed at better understand the current levels of ocean literacy across the UK. Among many other interesting findings, the survey, which was carried out online for a month in autumn 2022, pointed out that 82% of people said protecting the marine environment is very important or important to them personally, whereas climate change was identified as a threat, but marine litter and plastic pollution were seen to pose the most threat to the marine environment in NI along with chemical and land pollution.

All the presentations above can be downloaded by clicking on the name of the speakers.

After the talks, the attendees engaged in discussions about what they believe would be the most needed actions for the IOLN to take in order to best support the work of its members and foster the establishment of new local and cross-border ocean literacy-focused initiatives. The most frequent suggestions collected by the Secretariat were:

  • The organisation of additional in-person meetings in the near future, especially a follow-up meeting in Northern Ireland, more regional meetings in different locations of the province (e. g. Donegal), and a national meeting to bring all the IOLN members together in the same venue. Also, the attendees suggested the idea of organising a series of thematic meetings focused on topic of general interest for the IOLN community, as e. g. citizen science, pollution, MPAs, MSP, Ireland’s unique marine habitats;
  • The importance of supporting more strongly community engagement initiatives already happening and fostering the establishment of new ones;
  • The need for the IOLN to develop more targeted objectives that are actionable and have clear expected outcomes, perhaps also via the establishment of working groups within the network, and for the Secretariat to engage further with the members via e. g. a quarterly newsletter populated by the same members which showcases the variety of ocean literacy activities they carry on;
  • The need to support the establishment of a blue curriculum for schools in Northern Ireland, for instance via a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE).

The next regional meeting will be in Galway on the 21st of April and it is expected to bring forward the discussion started in Belfast and add new local perspectives to it. Please contact the Secretariat at for more information about all the next regional meetings.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.