It's one of Northern Ireland most precious sites, harbouring 80% of the species found in our marine waters.
Now a host of leading scientists from across Europe have mustered at Strangford Lough to seek out some of its more shy and retiring denizens.
They are taking part in a workshop teaching them to identify the tiny filter feeders in the bryozoan and hydroid families which feast on the microscopic creatures floating in the Lough’s waters.
Strangford Lough has been chosen because there’s a good chance that they will be able to find a wide range of species — simply because it is notoriously rich in wildlife.
Bryozoans and hydroids are extremely hard to identify. Bryozoans are tiny filter feeders that form colonies on all sorts of surfaces and more than 300 species are found in British and Irish waters. The produce chemicals which may have chemical uses and several are being tested as anti-cancer drugs.
Many hydroids are colonial and consist of hundreds of feeding polyps, similar in appearance to small jellyfish or anemones.
Joe Breen, head of aquatic science at the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), explained why Strangford Lough is so rich in wildlife, including the world-famous horse mussels that form unique living reefs there.
“It has a very diverse range of habitats because of its unique hydrodynamic conditions,” he said.
“The lough is sheltered in all directions so it’s not really affected by storms and winds, but it has a variety of habitats because it has the full range of tidal flows. From very strong flows in the Narrows, the tides get gentler and gentler the further north you go.
“The Narrows have bedrock and boulders, then as you go north it starts to flow through cobbles, then gravels, sands and mud, which is one of the reasons why you have the unusual Modiolus (horse mussel) reefs.
“These have strong currents going over the top of the mud bed, but they’re not getting wiped out every year by winter storms. They normally form into big massive waves but these don’t have the same diversity.”
The winds also play a major part in how the habitats are distributed as they are predominantly southwesterly, Mr Breen said.
“They go across the lough, not up and down it, so you have drowned drumlins on the western side and there are fewer of these on the eastern side, but you do see the remnants of them as reefs known locally as pladdies,” he said.
“Eighty per cent of the species to be found in Northern Ireland waters can be found in Strangford Lough because the habitats range from rock to gravels to sands and muds. That’s why it’s very special.”
Mr Breen said the workshop will provide valuable training for marine scientists.
“Accurate identification is vital to ensure that our marine biodiversity is adequately recorded and protected,” he said.
Dr Claire Goodwin, of National Museums Northern Ireland, who has organised the workshop with Dr Julia Nunn, from the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording (CEDaR), said it will be key in developing knowledge of what are little known but highly
important creatures essential to the marine ecosystem.
The scientists will be searching for bryozoans and hydroids in the rocky environment round the Narrows, as well as a highly unusual underwater ‘river’ of fast flowing currents called The Dorn said Dr Goodwin.
“We will also be heading up to the biogenic (horse mussel) reefs as a lot of things grow on these. We’re expecting to find a high diversity of hydroids and bryozoans and possibly some invasive bryozoan species,” she said.
The scientists, working from Queen’s University Belfast’s Marine Laboratory in Portaferry, include Bernard Picton, curator of marine invertebrates at National Museums NI. The expert on hydroids is Professor Fernando Boero from the University of Salento in Italy, who is now world famous for naming a new species of jellyfish after the late singer Frank Zappa.