Harbour porpoises have won extra protection as their north coast stronghold has just been named Northern Ireland’s newest Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
This protected area, announced by Environment Minister Alex Attwood yesterday, covers the sea and seabed surrounding the Skerries in Portrush and close to the Giant’s Causeway.
It features a rich network of sea caves, sandbanks and reefs and will afford protection for the harbour porpoise — the smallest of the whales and dolphins that frequent our waters.
The Skerries & Causeway SAC will be the first UK site to specifically target the harbour porpoise for protection. Another SAC has been declared at the Maidens, a pair of treacherous rocks off the Antrim Coast.
This means the rich sandbanks and reefs on the seabed surrounding the lighthouse rocks will be protected from damaging human activity, as will the grey seals that make their home there.
The new SACs join the likes of Strangford Lough, Rathlin Island, Red Bay and Murlough Bay — all sites that are considered important at European level.
SACs are not Marine Nature Reserves and most human activities within the boundary are permitted, once they have been assessed to show they do not impact on the protected features.
Announcing the new protected areas, Mr Attwood said: “These two sites represent the completion of the programme to identify and protect those areas of our coastal waters which are of international importance for their marine habitats and biodiversity.
“They demonstrate my department’s commitment to protecting our seas and the wildlife and ecosystems that they support.
“It has long been recognised that the waters off our north coast are important for harbour porpoise and this designation confirms that their numbers in this area are significant throughout the year. I hope this encourages people to visit the area to get a glimpse of these beautiful animals.
“The Bill is important as it is but it can go further. I will return to my Executive colleagues with ways and means to enhance the Bill. I hope I will win their backing.”
Extensive seabed surveys began in the 1990s and the results have been analysed by Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to identify for special protection the best examples of Northern Ireland’s marine habitats and species.
Those of highest quality are classified as SACs and added to Europe’s Natura 2000 Network of protected sites. Designation limits only those human activities likely to damage the protected features.
- Harbour porpoises are found throughout the temperate coastal waters of the Northern Hemisphere. They prefer the shallow, inshore waters and are most commonly seen in harbours and bays.
- They can dive to a depth of more than 200 metres, but usually stay near the surface, coming up about every 25 seconds to breathe with a distinctive puffing noise.