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Unique horse mussel reefs of Strangford Lough may be doomed

Strangford Lough’s unique horse mussel reefs could be doomed if the authorities don’t “get their act together”, the Ulster Wildlife Trust has said.

It says a plan to save the reefs ends soon — with most of its measures not implemented.

Strangford Lough has been set aside as a key haven for wildlife as it is the only place in the world where horse mussels settle to form a living reef.

The trust took a complaint to Europe in 2003 after much of that reef was decimated by commercial fishing operations.

But despite threats of major fines from Europe, the protection of the mussel has been handled with a “lack of will and seriousness”, said trust chief executive Heather Thompson.

After the EU threat of fines, the Strangford Lough Restoration Plan was drawn up to put the damage right, she said in the latest issue of Irish Hare magazine.

The plan, which runs from 2008 to 2011, requires strict protection of the remaining horse mussel beds; a ban on mobile fishing gear; exclusion zones from anchoring, potting and diving within a year of adoption of the plan; monitoring of the protection measures; and action to restore the horse mussels to Favourable Conservation Status.

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But little has been done, Ms Thompson claimed.

“While the initial ban on trawling with mobile fishing gear has been honoured and was put in place at the time of the complaint, very little else, if anything, has changed. The Ulster Wildlife Trust has deep concerns over the lack of will and seriousness with which this matter has been handled by our government,” she said.

“There is still no agreement on the areas that will receive protection from ongoing damaging activities associated with potting, anchoring and diving, an action which was set out as one of the key objectives for the first year of the three year Restoration plan. £1m later, we are only monitoring the status quo, not the delivery of the plans, and it would appear that DARD and DOE are at loggerheads over the implementation of the much-needed exclusion zones.

“The debate for legislation needed to implement and enforce the exclusion zones has now been further delayed until September 2010 at least, which means that they will only be put into place as the Restoration

Plan finishes. As yet there is no commitment from either department to extend the Restoration Plan work. It looks like the responsibility for this lack of progress falls between two stools — DARD and DOE.

“The trust is extremely concerned that, if anything, matters have deteriorated and that this extremely important species is doomed if nothing is done.

“Yet this site, Strangford Lough, is one of the most highly designated marine sites in the UK. If this is how such a site is treated by those who have responsibility for it, what hope have we got for the other less designated sites and what hopes can we really have for future marine legislation?”

A DOE spokesman said the two departments are continuing to work to implement the plan.

“A report from Queen’s University, who are delivering the key elements of the plan, is due to be published in March 2011. Both departments are in consultation with relevant stakeholders about the extent of the non-disturbance zones, which are designed to protect the remaining Modiolus (mussel) communities,” she said.

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