Beaches put in 'outstranding' performance for awards
Five local beaches feature in the latest edition of the Good Beach Guide, launched by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).
Helen's Bay, Crawfordsburn, Groomsport, Millisle Lagoon and Ballywalter are among the 16 out of 24 (67%) Northern Ireland beaches tested last summer as having excellent water quality - the highest in the Province in the Guide's 25-year history.
Last year the MCS Good Beach Guide highlighted the poor state of bathing waters in Northern Ireland, compared with the rest of the UK. This prompted the Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, to convene the Province's first ever Good Beach Summit. Since then, MCS has been working hard with other organisations in Northern Ireland in order to improve coastal water quality and reduce the amount of sewage related debris that blights much of its coastline.
Dr Robert Keirle, MCS Pollution Programme Manager, says the latest figures will be an important boost to Northern Ireland's tourism, but it's not a reason for complacency: "This is a milestone for coastal resorts to be proud of, and shows the impact of the Guide over the last 25 years.
"However, this summer will see the first samples taken under the revised Bathing Water Directive which will replace the current standards with far more stringent ones from 2015.
"It's really important that local authorities, Northern Ireland Water and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency don't become complacent and take their collective feet off the pedal of continued environmental improvements. If that happens we could see a drop in the number of beaches recommended by us in the future, which could pose a risk to the great reputation that our beaches have."
Meanwhile, Tidy Northern Ireland accuses the MCS of 'confusing the public' by omitting many "excellent beaches" that meet EU standards.
It says its 2012 Blue Flag and Seaside Awards will also go to a record number of beaches when its winners are announced at Crawfordsburn Country Park on May 24.
The awards comprise of the highly prized international Blue Flag award for beaches and marinas and the rural and resort Seaside Awards. Blue Flag beaches must meet 32 criteria, including Guideline bathing water quality as set by the EU Bathing Water Directive. The Seaside Award operates in a similar manner including meeting the mandatory EU standards for bathing water.
Other criteria ensure visitors to an award winning beach know what to expect. For example, Blue Flag beaches are cleaned regularly and will have good information about the beach including the most recent water quality results, facilities such as toilets and drinking water and life guards.
Ian Humphreys, chief executive, TIDY Northern Ireland said: "All Blue Flag and Seaside Award beaches not only have water quality that meets the EU bathing water standards, but also through the investment and hard work of beach operators meet a wide range of criteria covering safety, services, information and education.
"Obviously the criteria will be tougher, but Blue Flag is an award for excellence.
"It is also through the multi-million pound investment by NI Water to upgrade water treatment works that Northern Ireland's bathing waters have also improved."