Departments rapped on reefs damage
Stormont departments were slow to react to environmental damage to rare marine reefs in Strangford Lough, auditors have found.
The government response to the harmful impact on the horse mussel reefs caused by commercial fishing was marked by conflict between competing environmental and fisheries interests, the Northern Ireland Audit Office said.
The responsibility for addressing the issue was shared between the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (Dard), which has fisheries within its remit, and the Department of the Environment (DoE).
Strangford Lough was designated a Special Area of Conservation in 1996 under the EU's Habitats Directive, giving it particular protection under European law.
This enabled the European Commission to impose huge fines if the lough was not properly protected.
One of the primary reasons for the designation of special status was the presence of the rare horse mussel (Modiolus) reefs on the sea bed, with Strangford Lough thought to be the only place in Europe these had been found.
When evidence emerged in the 1980s and 1990s that the reefs had been extensively damaged, most likely by the trawling and dredging involved in commercial fishing, Dard moved to impose bans on that type of fishing.
However, the decline of the reefs continued, prompting the Ulster Wildlife Trust (UWT) to the lodge a complaint with the European Commission in 2003.
In December 2005, DoE and Dard jointly published a restoration plan for the reefs.
Audits said the two departments' failure to fully implement this plan resulted in a second UWT complaint 2011.
In response a revised restoration plan was drawn up in 2012.
A pledge to implement the new plan prompted the commission to decide not to pursue the complaint - but it will monitor the situation closely.
If the commission had upheld the UWT complaint, the Executive could have been landed with a 9 million euro (£6.6 million) bill, along with 650,000 euro-a-day (£475,625) ongoing fines.
Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said: "The departments were slow to react to the deteriorating condition of Strangford Lough's Modiolus biogenic reefs.
"Complaints to the European Commission represent a significant risk to the public finances.
"There is no scope for failure in implementing the revised restoration plan with the agreed timeframe if the Northern Ireland Executive is to avoid significant financial penalties."
The auditors found an assessment of the impact of pot fishing on the lough was also long delayed.