Stormont has failed to protect Strangford Lough properly for two decades, campaigners have said, yet two local politicians have said this failure could negatively impact local fishermen who work on the lough.
Northern Ireland faces EU fines in the millions of pounds if the Assembly does not begin to work to save the mussels in the near future.
Horse mussel reefs have been destroyed and habitat for sealife ruined, Ulster Wildlife Trust added. The trust has raised the damage with the European Commission.
Heather Thompson, the trust's chief executive, said: “Despite promises to Europe in 2005 that Northern Ireland would finally take serious action to restore the reefs to their former glory, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment have failed to deliver, resulting in continued decline of this vital natural resource.”
The Assembly debated the situation at the lough on Monday (January 23).
Jim Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford said: “Whilst the Ulster Wildlife Trust’s fears for Strangford Lough must be addressed and taken into account, we must also remember those fishermen who get their living from the lough.
“I have read documentation which I believe must be taken into account before DARD implements any changes. The environmental importance of Strangford Lough is recognised through the many national and European designations it has been awarded. It is also a living place with a multitude of activities occurring on, in and around the lough.
“The Agri Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) published a Habitats Directive Article 6 Test of Likely Significance on Pot fishing within Strangford Lough SAC stating that ‘there is considerable published evidence that pot fishing activities do not negatively impact benthic habitats‘ which is of course saying that fishing does not harm these important biogenic reefs. The commercial fishing industry believes that the implementation of a total protection zone without evidence of pot fishing causing damage is a disproportionate and would be an unfair response to the issue of declining horse mussel beds.
Alderman Kieran McCarthy, MLA, said Strangford Lough and its environs were precious and everything must be done to ensure that it remains a lively, healthy and vibrant amenity for everyone.
“The fishermen have agreed that perhaps a larger area within the lough might be set aside to allow the modulus reefs to further recover and thus enable stocks of other fish to flourish,” said Alderman McCarthy.
“The motion recognises the environmental importance of Strangford Lough and it also agrees that nothing should be done to deprive the fishermen of their means of employment.”
Alderman McCarthy called for the DOE and the DARD to work together with the fishermen to ensure best practice and to secure the long term future of Strangford Lough.