Executive faces fine over mussels
The Stormont Executive is facing a potential £8 million fine after the European Commission accused it of not doing enough to protect an endangered species of mussel.
The penalty could spiral upwards if action is not taken to halt the decline of the horse mussel population in Strangford Lough. The mussel clusters on the lough bed have been seriously depleted over the last 10 years, primarily as a result of fishing activities in the waters.
Direct Rule ministers established a management regime in 2006 to protect the species, but the EC has now written to Environment Minister Alex Attwood insisting that the initiative has not worked.
Commissioners have given the Executive until May to take action, otherwise they will initiate infraction proceedings - an action that could land the administration with an £8 million fine, which would increase day by day until the issue is addressed. While the mussel clusters in the lough used to be the size of an average kitchen table they are now apparently only the size of dinner plates.
Mr Attwood, who has responsibility for protecting the lough's ecosystem, is working with Fishing Minister Michelle O'Neill to formulate a joint action plan in a bid to avert the penalty. While they had initially proposed that four no-fish zones were put in place, the EC said that was not enough and called for a larger area of the lough to be protected.
Mr Attwood said meaningful action was needed to allay Europe's concerns. "We're now at a very, very critical point," he said. "We have received correspondence that infraction proceedings have commenced and asked us to answer a series of questions and we need to answer those questions."
He said the Executive also had to be mindful of the fishermen who rely on the lough's waters - an industry valued at around £200,000 a year.
"In order to convince Europe, the Government here needs to be decisive," he said. "At the same time we must do what we can to protect the fishing industry in the lough."
Mr O'Neill added: "I remain disappointed with the Commission interpretation but I am determined to develop a response which fully matches our responsibility under the Habitats Directive. I have undertaken to meet fishermen in the near future to discuss options with them and officials from both departments will be working hard together to develop a satisfactory management regime for the future."
Mr Attwood, who held meetings with European officials last week, said he would return to Brussels in the coming weeks to hold further discussions on the issue.