Four areas of Northern Ireland coast to get protected status
Four Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) are being planned across Northern Ireland in an effort to protect rare species and habitats.
Rathlin Island, Redbay at Waterfoot in Co Antrim and parts of Carlingford Lough and Belfast Lough are to get special status.
Black guillemots, seagrass meadows and a type of clam called an ocean quahog that can live for up to 500 years are among the species the scheme hopes to protect.
It is thought that the oldest living quahogs in Belfast Lough would have been there during both world wars and the launch of the Titanic.
A consultation on the MCZs will run until March next year. A roadshow is also planned in the new year to allow politicians, community groups and individuals to give their views.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan was given a marine tour of Belfast Lough on board The Mona.
Speaking afterwards, he said: "MCZs conserve the diversity of rare and threatened habitats and species in our waters.
"Designating these MCZs will be an important step towards protecting and enhancing the biodiversity of our seas, helping protect important marine habitats and species.
"As well as protecting nationally important marine wildlife, the zones will also protect geological features in these waters."
The habitats and species to be protected at each site are:
• Rathlin - deep seabed, black guillemot and geological/geomorphological features including submerged lagoons and sea arches);
• Waterfoot - sub-tidal sand with subtidal seagrass beds (zostera marina);
• Outer Belfast Lough - ocean quahog and associated habitat subtidal sand;
• Carlingford Lough - subtidal mud containing sea-pen and white sea slug.
Rebecca Hunter from the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force welcomed the scheme as a boost for the environment.
"Northern Ireland is home to some of Europe's most unique and important marine wildlife, and we believe that these MCZs provide a real opportunity to help the recovery of our valuable seas," she said
"We hope MCZs will have the support not just of nature and wildlife lovers from across Northern Ireland but from every citizen who values all that our seas provide."