A good day’s work done — says retiring Marine Institute chief as Renville voyage ends

Dr Peter Heffernan, who has just retired as CEO of the Marine Institute. Photo: Andrew Downes, Xposure

Dr Peter Heffernan, who has just retired as CEO of the Marine Institute. Photo: Andrew Downes, Xposure

The man who grew the Marine Institute from just one person to now, a staff of more than 200, retired last Saturday after 26 years of service — and when I called out to chat with Dr Peter Heffernan for one last time before he stepped down, I met him at the front door, being helped to load boxes into his car. Twenty six years in one office amasses a lot of material.

“It feels like a good day’s work done. It was the job of a lifetime,” he said when I ask him if he is proud of all that has been achieved. “But the institute is now in good hands,” he said, paying tribute to his successor, Dr Paul Connolly, who takes over this week.

Dr Heffernan has served as the CEO of the Marine Institute since 1993 and has held a highly successful role in building and leading the organisation. The semi-state agency has grown from a staff of one to 230, which now incorporates the Institute’s headquarters in Renville; the Newport Research Facility in Co Mayo; and the Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO ) in Dublin.

It was all so different when he started in 1993.

“At the outset, our total research capacity at sea was 30 hours. The reality of that time was that every, Ireland was being out-invested by a ratio of 50:1 in terms of our State investing to gain a knowledge of our maritime resources. Every other nation in Europe was investing much much more.

“It was a very slow process. Marine was at the very back end of a very long queue. There was an 80-year deficit in infrastructure capacity, so it was a painstaking war of attrition. It really was a marathon.

And it worked — As CEO of the Institute, Dr Heffernan has overseen the arrival of Ireland’s two purpose-built marine research vessels, the RV Celtic Voyager in 1997 and the RV Celtic Explorer in 2003. The RV Celtic Voyager has provided a platform for scientists to undertake essential fisheries research, environmental monitoring, seabed mapping, oceanographic work, data buoy maintenance and student training. The vessels retain source of pride for Dr Heffernan.

“The first time I heard a taxi driver down the docks describe them as ‘that’s our ships,’ I knew they had arrived in terms of acceptance and ownership in Galway.”

The RV Celtic Explorer has played a vital role in Ireland’s fisheries research, placing Ireland in a much stronger position to propose effective conservation measures for fish stocks and support the sustainability of the Irish fishing industry. A new state-of-the-art marine research vessel is also scheduled for completion in 2022, which will mark a major milestone in the Marine Institute’s effort to provide world-class marine scientific advice and services.

In 2006, they moved into the world-class facility right on the edge of the ocean at Renville.

“Then the crisis hit and after having 14 years of double digit growth every year minimum, we faced seven or eight very tough years with a budget cut of about 35 per cent. Thankfully, we have built that back up and this year will be the record turnover in investment in the marine ever.

“Working with Government, Ireland is very much on track to achieve the economic targets set to double the size of the Blue Economy by 2020. In football terms, we had shown we were capable of surviving in the Premier League, but now it looks like we can go and win it, in terms of marine research. We are on target to double the contribution to GDP by 2030, so in the next decade, a new iteration of that Marine Plan will be even more ambitious.

Changing the gaze

A key task for Dr Heffernan was making people face out to sea, to look at the potential that existed there.

“One of the best things we ever did was create the real map of Ireland which when you look at it, shows the land offshore, taking the water away so we can see through the water. Human eyes can’t see through water and people become distance. There is a blind spot, not just in Ireland, at how important the ocean is to human life on earth.

“The threat of climate change is a very real one, a very significant one and the Marine Institute will be expanding our science capacity to combat this. Built upon the best map of sea-floor territory in the world, our nation has the ability to have the best downscaled modelling predictive capacity anywhere in the world.

“Due to the hard work of the staff here at the Institute, we have earned a strong international reputation. Ireland will in 2026 be the first nation in the world to have mapped digitally and with open access, all our seabed territory.

The Mayo native and NUI Galway graduate is proud of what he has achieved here in his own region and has always had a love for the waters and the life that lives in it.

“I grew up on the banks of the river Moy in Ballina and also fished offshore. It was something my father loved. I had a great time at NUI Galway doing zoology and marine science and playing Sigerson Cup football as well.”

Before the building was opened at Renville, it was based in a temporary building at Ballybrit.

“That was great because it meant that we got the advance team in place. We have a fantastic research facility here, the ships down in the port of Galway, and also an excellent research facility at Furness, in Newport, Co Mayo. That one was actually established by the Guinness family over 60 years ago and is a very important indicator site for climate change studies tracked through the life cycle of salmon and eels. If you were to design a robot for yourself to go across the Atlantic, collect samples, and them to come back to your lab, you have it from nature in a salmon.

“It is an open door laboratory. Ireland will soon be the only island-nation in the European Union, with all the geographic advantages of being beside the Atlantic. In terms of Brexit, Institute staff have been advising the Government and support in understanding all fisheries-related scenarios that might arise.

“In the past few years, people have become quite conscious of the ocean in a way they had not been before, and events like Seafest play a huge role in this. The issue of the plastic pollution of the waters as well is a key one that has engaged the public. Sky News, Blue Planet and Ken O’Sullivan’s series were all of excellent quality and helped raise awareness of what is happening in our seas.

Our ocean wealth

In 2009, Dr Heffernan instigated the development of the Inter-Department Marine Coordination Group (MCG ). Chaired by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, the group brought together representatives of departments with an involvement in marine and maritime issues to coordinate inter-departmental action.

The MCG produced Ireland’s first integrated marine plan for Ireland Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth in 2012 which set out two targets - increase the value of Ireland’s ocean wealth to 2.4% of GDP by 2030 and double the turnover from our ocean economy (from €3.2 billion ) to exceed €6.4 billion by 2020. In 2018, Ireland’s ocean economy is estimated to have a turnover of €6.2 billion and GVA estimated at €4.2 billion equivalent to 2% of GDP.

In 2013, Dr Heffernan acted as an inspiration and Irish EU Presidency ambassador for the creation of the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance (AORA ) with the signing of the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation between Canada, the European Union and the United States of America. Six years on and AORA has been recognised as an outstanding success story in the Atlantic area and an exemplar of international science diplomacy. To date, AORA has achieved an investment from Horizon 2020 EU funding of more than €140 million to support research in the Atlantic Ocean.

Ireland is now considered a world leader in the field of seabed mapping through the expertise of the Geological Survey Ireland and the Marine Institute. The Irish National Seabed Survey (INSS ), which began in 1999 remains one of the largest seabed mapping projects ever undertaken in the world. Now known as the INFOMAR programme and scheduled for completion in 2026, Ireland will become the first nation in the world to have comprehensively mapped its entire seabed territory.

Research and Innovation are central to the role and mission of the Marine Institute. A Marine Knowledge, Research and Innovation Strategy for Ireland, ‘Sea Change’ was prepared by the Marine Institute and launched in 2007. A new National Marine Research and Innovation Strategy 2021 was also prepared by the Marine Institute in 2017, to help ensure Ireland maintains its position at the forefront of marine research in Europe.

The Marine Institute has achieved an outstanding success rate of over 40% in funding bids to the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. The total funding approved to date under this programme has now surpassed the €8m target, 18 months ahead of schedule. The work of the Marine Institute has seen significant collaborations with industry and other research centres and universities in Ireland, Europe and international stakeholders, strengthening Ireland’s ability in providing a foundation for applied research and innovation.

Dr Heffernan was recently selected as a member of the European Commission’s Mission Board for Healthy Oceans, Seas, Coastal and Inland Waters, one of five major research missions of Horizon Europe, the EU Research and Innovation programme (2021 – 2027 ). He will be one of 15 experts on the Mission Board which will identify the first possible specific missions on healthy oceans by the end of 2019.

Chairman of the Marine Institute Dr John Killeen said this week that as CEO, Dr Heffernan has overseen tremendous growth.

“He has played a fundamental role in developing Ireland’s ocean research capacity, increasing collaboration in marine research and innovation in Europe, as well as driving sustainable development across a range of maritime sectors. Dr Heffernan leaves a lasting legacy and has set the Institute on course to become a global leader in ocean knowledge. On behalf of the Board and Marine Institute staff, I thank Dr Heffernan for his dedication, strategic direction and leadership as CEO and wish him all the best as he begins a new voyage.”

We all share those sentiments. Thanks for making us all look out to sea and seeing the wonders that lie there.

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