Protect our seas: Have your say on what activities should be allowed in our most important marine areas.

The Northern Ireland Marine Task Force (NIMTF) is encouraging everyone to take part in a new government consultation that will help restore our seas and the important marine life found within them.

A better future for our seas:

The seas around Northern Ireland are very special. They provide a home for over 50 % of our total biodiversity, including important fish, seabirds, plant life and marine mammals. Sadly, much of our marine wildlife is in decline as the legacy of past activities such as overfishing, combined with climate change and habitat loss, has severely threatened our sea life and their homes. One of the most powerful and effective methods of protecting marine wildlife is by designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – carefully selected sites which aim to conserve our unique and most vulnerable marine habitats and species. Over recent years Northern Ireland has designated a range of MPAs, and this network now covers 38 % of our sea area. But worryingly, current assessments show that only 4.5 % of these sites are adequately managed.

Black guillemot. Photo credit – Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

Addressing pressures from fishing:

But there is hope. By reviewing how our MPAs are managed and considering which activities will be allowed and which must be removed, we have a chance to turn this around. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is currently asking organisations and members of the public to give their views on a range of new fisheries measures, including the restriction of mobile and static fishing practices in our MPAs. Commercial fishing methods such as trawling and dredging can damage sensitive habitats and marine life such as reefs, seagrass, sandbanks and maerl beds – the very features for which many of these sites are designated for. But we believe that well-managed MPAs are able to support sustainable fisheries and mitigate against the impact of climate change while also working to recover and revive our marine environment. Bold and ambitious measures are required to achieve this, and that’s why we’re asking for your help.

Your voice matters:

The consultation is live until 31st March and we’re asking as many people as possible to respond and support better management of our most important marine sites and for more sustainable fisheries to restore our seas.

The NIMTF are submitting a response in support of proposals to remove mobile gear fishing in each of the nine sites under consideration in the consultation. We also support the introduction of new measures to manage how pot fishing is regulated in these areas.

How to respond to the public consultation:

Click on this link and you will be taken to the public consultation page. Here you will be asked a series of questions on the development of fisheries management measures for MPAs and the establishment of scallop enhancement sites. 

There are nine sites being considered for better MPA management: Skerries and Causeway Coast, Rathlin Island, Waterfoot, Red Bay, Maidens, Outer Belfast Lough, Strangford Lough, Murlough and Carlingford Lough. You can give your views on all of the sites or to a select few areas that are locally important to you.

To support the NIMTF’s response, we would ask you to respond to the questions as follows:

YES – in support of the preferred option 2: to prohibit demersal mobile gear fishing.

YES – in support of the recommended option to prohibit static gear fishing.

YES – in support of the proposed measures to manage pot fishing, such as following best practice on biosecurity, mandatory vessel position monitoring, pot tagging, recording of bycatch and entanglements of protected species and the continued use of more selective gear.

Common seals on Rathlin Island. Photo credit – Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Enhancing scallop fisheries:

The second part of the consultation proposes closing four sites to mobile fishing gear. The NI fishing industry proposed these sites in response to their own concerns about the sustainability of local king scallop stocks. The four areas have been endorsed by the Northern Ireland Scallop Fishermen’s Association and the industry worked with scientists at AFBI, funded by Seafish, to identify these particular sites where there can be natural recovery of scallops which will then spill-over to supplement stocks on nearby commercial grounds. The sites will be a type of Marine Protected Area, feeding into the wider NI MPA network and they will have a range of benefits to local biodiversity in addition to scallop stocks. The NIMTF fully supports the recommended option to remove mobile fishing gear throughout these sites and asks that you respond YES in support of this option.

Birds, Puffin, close up with sandeels

Thank you for your help!

Ambitious and effective management is one way we can help restore our seas. We believe both marine wildlife and commercial fishing can thrive in seas that are well-managed and we urge you to join our cause to support healthier, productive and more resilient seas for us all.  

Dr. Kenneth Bodles, Marine Policy Officer, RSPB Northern Ireland.

Murlough

There is so much our coast and seas offer us. We should get out there and explore them and strive to protect them.

Although I live among the rolling drumlins of County Down, fortunately I’m not too far from the sea. When I was asked to write this blog, it made me think about the coast and seas that surround us and shape our lives on this island.

I know that the tiny plankton in our seas produce roughly half of all the oxygen in the atmosphere. I know that the harvests of the sea feeds us and supports many livelihoods. I know that as well as food and raw materials, we’ve imported but mostly exported people from these shores for years. I know roughly half of our biodiversity lives in the sea and that we need to do a much better job of protecting and managing it. I know that Strangford Lough is one of our most designated protected areas, that it is home to over 2,000 species and that we can watch around 80% of the world’s population of Brent geese flock to its shores every winter to feed. I know that despite its importance and all those designations, key features of this special place have been knowingly damaged.

Murlough – Michael MacMahon

I know the Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site and its most popular tourist attraction with over one million visitors in 2018.  I know that the exciting opportunities to generate huge amounts of renewable energy from the wind and waves will write some of the next chapters of our rich history.

When I think of our coast I think of the excitement uncovering crabs and sea anemones in rockpools brings to explorers big and small, of the thrill of seeing gannets drop from the sky and pierce the sea like black-tailed white arrows as they dive for fish just below the waves and of how the sights and sounds of the curlew and oystercatcher are so familiar and evocative. There is so much our coast and seas offer us. We should get out there and explore them and strive to protect them.

Keel Point – Michael MacMahon

I look forward to walking the expansive, sandy beach at Murlough outside Newcastle in the sunshine, while cooled by a gentle breeze as I meander in and out of the sea, heading towards where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. I may go in the other direction to see if I can spot some of the seals that often laze around on the beach at Ballykinler, just like people might do. When I walk though the impressive dunes, on my way to and from the beach, I probably will think about why Ireland’s first nature reserve is also an Area of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation; about how it supports over 620 species of butterfly and moths including the delicate,  endangered marsh fritillary butterfly; about how this 6,000 year old dune system is threatened by the rising seas and extreme weather of a warming world and about how we need to do more to protect our coast and seas from the damage we are causing. I probably will look for some of the butterflies, flowers and birds that make this place so special as I wander through it but above all, when I step off the narrow boardwalk that stretches to touch the beach framed by the seemingly endless sea and sky, I’ll just savour the experience.  

Malachy Campbell – Senior Policy Officer – Northern Ireland Environment Link

Causeway Coast

Our seas are resilient, we have seen on social media how wildlife has flourished when we slow down, like the wildflowers blooming at the Giant’s Causeway. When we return to a ‘new normal’ we need to remember this and move forward in how we treat and respect our environment and the species that live here.

One of the best things about living in Northern Ireland is that you are never too far away from the seaside, and in my opinion, the Causeway coast is one of the most beautiful and diverse! It is not just my opinion either- the causeway coastal route is listed as one of the best drives in the world by Lonely planet! Sometimes we don’t always realise how stunning Northern Ireland is (the grass is always greener and all that), from the dramatic outline of fair head, to the carrick-a-rede rope bridge and the Giant’s Causeway or the shores of Dorne to the Kingsroad (if you are a Game of Throne’s fan!). Let me point out that as a UNESCO world heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway is on the same level as Yellowstone National Park and the Galapagos Islands!

Another reason why I love this coast is the diversity and abundance of marine megafauna! This week (25th May 2020), we were supposed to be out on the Celtic Mist surveying the North Coast for bottlenose dolphins! The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group alongside the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) have shown that this area of coast (from the Giant’s Causeway to Malin Head) is a potential hotspot for bottlenose dolphins in our waters! We have created a photo-identification catalogue of bottlenose dolphins (using unique markings on their dorsal fins) and it contains 54 well marked individual dolphins (there are more but their fins are too perfect to be able re-identify!). The North coast is a great place to try and spot some dolphins and porpoises as well as minke whales, basking sharks, if you are very lucky, humpback whales and even the odd sunfish! You never know what will show up- some of you might remember when a beluga whale appeared in 2015!

Bottlenose Dolphin Dorsal Fins – Various Contributors

I have many happy childhood memories of spending holidays in my grandparents caravan on the causeway coast where days were spent bodyboarding at the beach or walking along the cliff paths at the Giant’s Causeway and of course finished off with a trip to Barry’s! I still love going up to the coast and I can’t wait until we are allowed to travel again to visit. I remember last May day I was on Portstewart Strand and I was genuinely shocked at how much rubbish was blowing around – which ended in an impromptu beach clean! I urge people to look after our amazing coastline and our seas so future generations can enjoy it’s beauty and biodiversity like we do. Our seas are resilient, we have seen on social media how wildlife has flourished when we slow down, like the wildflowers blooming at the Giant’s Causeway. When we return to a ‘new normal’ we need to remember this and move forward in how we treat and respect our environment and the species that live here.

Giants Causeway Wildflowers – National Trust NI

Catherine Hinds – Northern Ireland Officer – Irish Whale and Dolphin Group

Strangford

Strangford Sunset – Rebecca Hunter

Strangford is a reminder that the recovery of our damaged natural areas can happen and, we believe, must happen to secure a healthy, wildlife-rich future for us all.  

Variety is the spice of life and it’s hard to find a place with more natural variety than under the waves and around the coasts of Northern Ireland. And nowhere does it better than Strangford Lough. I’ve been visiting the lough since I was six and my dad first took me across on the Strangford-Portaferry ferry. It’s a place I come back to often now for work, the rocky shore in front of Portaferry has some of the best rock pool life I’ve found locally – the last time I was there we recorded shannies, butterfish, juvenile brown crabs and lots of bright red beadlet anemones. 

The lough is well known as a jewel in the crown of Europe’s marine areas; and deservedly so. It’s the largest sea lough in the UK and boasts some of the fastest tidal streams in the world which fly through the mouth of the lough, creating a perfect home for filter feeding animals, like anemones, sponges and hydriods, which blanket the walls of Strangford’s narrows.

The Lough has a variety of personalities – its softer side is found at the northern end where it hosts some of the largest continuous mudflats in the UK, which provide ample feeding grounds for wading birds. Strangford actually supports over 80% of the global population of brent geese who come every winter to feed on the seagrass and green seaweed. 

Strangford (like all of us to be fair) has a bumpier side too. The countryside of County Down is marked by numerous hillocks, called drumlins, a leftover from the last ice age. These drumlins don’t stop at the shore but continue into the lough, creating the array of tiny islets that pepper the water’s surface – some say enough to number the days of the year. These unmanned areas also provide sanctuaries for the seals of Strangford – both the harbour seal and grey seal are found here. And if you’re lucky, you might ride the ferry alongside a group of bottlenose dolphins or spot a solitary harbour porpoise foraging by the coast. 

Strangford Lough also comes with some scars and plenty of baggage. Although it was protected in the 1990s for the wealth of wildlife found there, a lack of management left the seabed, and Strangford’s rare horse mussel reefs, badly damaged. But after years of work, the lough is finally beginning to show signs of recovery.

At difficult times like this, it can help to share stories of recovery. And while I can’t travel to Strangford at the minute, any areas of nature, wildlife and peace have been vital to my everyday life. When we begin to recover from the Covid-19 crisis, we will need to protect and restore our natural areas more than ever.  A recent report has highlighted that climate-friendly ‘green’ policy initiatives will help to address the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises, and could deliver the best economic returns for government spending. Strangford is a reminder that the recovery of our damaged natural areas can happen and, we believe, must happen to secure a healthy, wildlife-rich future for us all.  

Rebecca Hunter – Living Seas Manager – Ulster Wildlife