Northern Ireland urgently needs a Marine Bill to preserve its important habitats and species and to restrict damaging maritime activities, it has been claimed.
Hundreds of schoolchildren protested at Stormont yesterday in a bid to force local politicians to introduce the laws to protect coastal waters.
And to make their point the youngsters helped make a replica 40ft basking shark which they wheeled to the doors at Stormont. They then handed a 4,000 signiture petition to Environment Minister Alex Attwood urging him to introduce the bill.
Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK without legal safeguards for its coast and environmentalists have long been critical of the lack of statutory protection available for marine habitat areas off our shores.
A Marine Bill for Northern Ireland would allow for the creation of marine conservation zones.
The campaign to have the Marine Bill introduced is headed by the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force which represents eight different wildlife protection groups.
Campaign co-ordinator Ricky Devlin says the bill is vital for the protection of coastal waters.
He said: “Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not have a Marine Bill. Today our local seas are under terrific pressure and it is shocking that this precious and vital common resource still does not have the protection and safeguards that England, Wales and Scotland have enjoyed since 2009. We need over-reaching legislation in place to oversee and manage the many and conflicting demands we make of the waters around our coast.”
The environmental campaigner explained why a Marine Bill is needed.
“These areas of the sea are important because they will provide refuges for wildlife and act as seedbeds for the long term recovery of threatened habitats and species,” he said.
“We need to protect the right species and the right areas and we need more comprehensive and joined-up thinking. We have to do this to give nature a chance to recover. It’s good for nature and it’s good for everyone else. At this point we don’t really know how much we have lost but we do know we can’t afford to lose any more.”
And the campaigner said it was heartening to see so many children taking an interest. The petition was the brainchild of Down High School Upper Sixth student Lauren Finlay and several friends.
Marine Conservation Zones cannot be created in Northern Ireland without the legislation. A report last year from the Ulster Wildlife Trust said that Strangford Lough, Rathlin Island, The Skerries off Portrush, The Maidens near Larne, Red Bay near Glenarm, Carlingford Lough, Dundrum Bay, Belfast Lough, Lough Foyle, the North Antrim Coast, Larne Lough, the North Channel and Pisces reefs should have more ecological protection. Strangford Lough is Northern Ireland's only Marine Nature Reserve, with commercial fishing tightly controlled.