Environment Minister Michelle McIlveen has announced that four Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) have been designated in Northern Ireland’s in-shore region.
The new zones, Rathlin, Waterfoot, Outer Belfast Lough and Carlingford Lough have been proposed through Designation Orders using powers that were made available through the Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013.
MCZs conserve the diversity of rare and threatened habitats and species in the waters, and in addition to protecting nationally important marine wildlife they also protect geological features.
Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Michelle McIlveen said: “Designation of these four sites is an important step towards protecting and enhancing the biodiversity of our seas, and helping protect important marine habitats and species.
“Achieving this objective is challenging but I am committed to continuing to work with the fishing industry and all marine stakeholders to develop appropriate management measures that will support and promote sustainable activities including fishing.
“These proposals have been developed using sound scientific evidence and with the involvement of stakeholders from all marine sectors including fishing, ports and harbours, renewable energy, angling and environmental groups.”
In developing the Marine Conservation Zones, the Department gave full consideration to the need to protect marine biodiversity while supporting sustainable activities including fisheries.
Following designation there is a duty on all public authorities to manage activities that could impact on the achievement of the Conservation Objective for the MCZs.
There will be a presumption of sustainable use within an MCZ so long as the conservation objectives of a site can be furthered or least hindered. However, specific activities which pose a significant risk to a protected feature may have to be managed.
The four Marine Conservation Zones were designated on December 12. The protected features for which they are being designated are as follows:
Rathlin – Deep-sea bed, Black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) and Geological/Geomorphological features (features indicating past change in relative sea level)
r The MCZ supports the only known location of the broad scale habitat, Deep-sea bed in Northern Irish waters.
r Rathlin Island also supports a large population of Black guillemots (Cepphus grylle) that nest within the Island’s cliffs. Their reproductive success here may be related to the highly productive waters and rich feeding grounds within the MCZ.
r A range of subtidal geological and geomorphological features have also been recorded including a submerged coastline, underwater caves, sea arches and lagoons. These are important indicators of global sea-level change.
Waterfoot – Seagrass (Zostera marina) beds on Subtidal (sublittoral) sand
r Zostera marina is a marine flowering plant (not a seaweed) with long leaves up to 1-2m long.
r Subtidal seagrass beds play an important role in coastal ecosystems and are known as ecosystem engineers. They increase sedimentation by slowing down water currents through their leaves, allowing sediment to settle out of the water, and they stabilise the seabed with their roots. They also provide a hiding place for small marine organisms, nursery areas for fish species, feeding grounds and organic matter which can be incorporated into coastal nutrient cycles. In addition, seagrass beds have been noted for their ability to combat the effects of climate change by capturing CO2 and incorporating this into extensive root systems.
Outer Belfast Lough – Ocean quahog (Arctica islandica) and associated habitat Subtidal (sublittoral) sand
r The Ocean quahog is a large suspension feeding bivalve mollusc that can reach over 400 years in age. The oldest recorded Ocean quahog from Belfast Lough was approximately 220 years old.
r The Ocean quahog is an important food source for several species of fish, including cod. In other countries it is commercially fished and is also of academic interest as a marine palaeoclimate archive and a model for age research.
Carlingford Lough – Philine aperta and Virgularia mirabilis in soft stable infralittoral mud.
r Carlingford Lough has an extensive intertidal area of sand and mudflats that provide key feeding grounds for overwintering birds
r The White lobe shell (Philine aperta) and the Sea-pen (Virgularia mirabilis) both occur in high densities. This is a unique habitat in Northern Ireland due to the short height of the individual Virgularia and overall density of the population.