The tonnes of litter we thoughtlessly discard every year is destroying our shores — and poisoning the food chain.
That’s the stark warning from green campaigners who say the litter left festooning beaches, such as Crawfordsburn in north Down, a week after it hosted Tidy Northern Ireland’s Blue Flag awards, is not just unsightly, but a form of self-harm.
Tidy NI director Ian Humphreys said: “Plastic bags go into the sea, they break down, they soak up toxins and go back into the food chain. They come back to us and our children. That’s a form of self-harm and it upsets me. We live for the day, and ultimately we end up regretting it. It takes away from everyone’s enjoyment — and it’s so easily sorted, but we’re not sorting it.”
Today, our Save Our Seas campaign turns its focus to our beleaguered coasts, which are coming under pressure from all directions: litter, development, pollution and climate change.
The aim of the week-long series of articles is to uncover the cataclysmic threats that are undermining the rich life that our seas and waterways once supported.
Ian said: “We look after our coast in Northern Ireland for very personal reasons. Most of us, if not all, would go to the coast at least sometime in the year.
“We want to enjoy it when we get there and we don’t want it to be covered in litter, whether it’s our own picnic rubbish, nappies, fishing gear or sewage-related litter.
“It’s also vital for tourism that people go away with an experience of Northern Ireland being a clean place. We have a wild, beautiful coastline, with attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway, and it’s important that they don't have to trudge through miles of rubbish.
“A lot of that litter gets washed into the sea and we start to cause bigger global problems whose effects are not so immediate but are very important. You have seabirds that ingest bottle tops and end up starving to death, and turtles ingesting plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish.”
The litter campaign group encourages people to take responsibility for their coasts through programmes such as the Clean Coast Awards, and also oversees the Blue Flag and Seaside Awards. Staff and volunteers scouring our beaches have discovered everything from dead wildlife trapped in litter, to gravestones dumped on the beach among builders’ rubble.
“Every piece of litter has an impact on the planet. This goes way beyond the aesthetic to what is a slow poisoning of the planet. They are talking about calling this the Anthropecine geological era because there is so much man-made rubbish being laid down that in future millennia they will be able to see the impact of humans on the geological record,” Ian said.
The most recent Clean Coast programme saw 876 people devoting 2,000 working days to clearing up some 3,300 kilos of litter from the coastline.
“Tidy NI plays an important role in supporting and mobilising volunteers to clean up our coastline.
“We tend to do that very visibly so it’s a demand to people not to drop litter and a message that a lot of folk round our coastline don’t want it to happen,” Ian added.
“It shows that the people of Northern Ireland take this issue seriously, and more and more people are realising if they want to make a change they have to get personally involved.’’
Ian says the wealth of wildlife on a recent visit to the Copeland Islands, off Co Down, proved to him there is still time to change our ways and look after our coasts.
“It’s how we make it happen. We all know what the problems are — it’s when you come to decide what the solution should be that it gets difficult: there’s education, there’s awareness, there’s enforcement and every one of those has to happen in abundance.
“The plastic bag levy is the right thing to be doing. I would love to see a plastic bottle company take the lead so that we can get money back on plastic bottles
“Plastic bottles are a major source of litter in the sea and we could see bottle litter cut overnight.
“We could sort this very very quickly if we had the will.”
Why our poorly protected coastline is costing millions in lost tourism
By Linda Stewart
Neglect of our coasts could be costing us millions in tourism revenue, a marine campaigner has warned.
The spectacular beaches, cliffs and shores of Northern Ireland are potentially a vast attraction for tourism, yet they are blighted by litter, poor water quality and industrial waste, according to Nigel Hamilton of Marine Conservation Northern ireland.
“If we look after that environment, it will look after us. The coastline has the potential to be an industry for effective tourism, but it won’t be if people find there is litter on the beach and the water has effluent in it,” he said.
“Our coastline is potentially a vast attraction for tourism, both for local footfall and for visiting tourists from Scotland, from Germany and even from the States.
“But the coastline is only as good as the way it’s maintained. Littering is a key issue; spillage of industrial waste is another. It’s costing us millions of pounds, it’s costing us livelihoods, it's costing us the respect and responsibility for our marine culture. We need the Blue Flags on beaches.”
The Government has responded slowly and begrudgingly to EU laws, such as the Water Framework Directive aimed at protecting the environment, he said.
And he warned of the threat to coastal species in Larne Lough — where Northern Ireland’s only remaining pair of roseate terns nest — from plans to carve out underground gas storage caverns from the salt layer beneath the lough. Many locals are opposed to the plans, concerned that the con
centrated brine produced will destroy the sensitive habitats.
“There would be seven of these caverns beneath Larne Lough, each three times the size of the Odyssey. It could be really catastrophic for seabird colonies like Portmuck, for Islandmagee, potentially for the tern islands in Larne Lough. We are concerned that there will be vast amounts of brine pouring into the sea.”
Northern Ireland’s coasts are affected by a host of threats — pollution pouring down from land and waterways, exploitation of resources, littering and development. The National Trust reports ed that one in 10 pairs of breeding birds in Strangford Lough uses litter as nesting material.
Our estuaries, mudflats and salt marshes can appear muddy and dirty and have often been seen as good land to replace with developments in the past, according to Ulster Wildlife Trust living seas manager Dr Jade Berman (right). These habitats come under pressure from direct disturbance such as dredging, construction of causeways, coastal defences and harvesting. Land reclamation schemes, such as in Belfast Lough, have lost mudflats to harbour development.
Mudflats are sensitive to pollution and nutrient enrichment as the algae can prevent light reaching the mud beneath and may form mats which replace the eel grass beds which are vital to Brent geese.
Two of Northern Ireland’s most modified estuaries — the Quoile pondage and the inner Belfast Lough and tidal Lagan — are already showing the effects of pollution, with oxygen levels, which are vital for fish survival, plunging periodically.
In both sites, excessive nutrients from farm run-off and waste water have combined with a lack of movement of the water, due to tidal barrages, causing periodic drops in dissolved oxygen. In the Quoile, this has resulted in fish kills.
Northern Ireland’s coasts could become even more of a battleground in the future as more and more interests compete for them.
The potential for conflict only increases as new industries such as the offshore renewables sector come online — and global warming brings rising sea levels, increased coastal erosion and storm surges.
Coastal habitats are first in line to be lost when climate change begins to grip, says Alastair Church of Northern Ireland Environment Agency. And as sea levels rise, coastal erosion is likely to become more of a threat to declining habitats such as salt marshes.
“I’ve seen active erosion in Lough Foyle. We carry out surveys and go back to some locations only to find the habitat has gone completely,” he said.
Marine campaigners have warned that the Marine Bill process must be co-ordinated with Marine Spatial Planning.
NI Marine Task Force spokesman Richard Devlin said: “If we don’t get the Marine Spatial Planning and the Marine Conservation Zones better co-ordinated, you could have an area zoned for a particular industry and then find it has a species that hadn’t been taken into consideration.”