Northern Ireland’s answer to the great tropical reefs has just won European protection.
Maerl — underwater structures similar to coral lying off the Co Antrim coast — are a hotbed for marine wildlife and could date back as far as 3,000BC, according to Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA).
Ancient deposits of maerl at Red Bay off the coast of Cushendun will join Strangford Lough, Rathlin Island and Murlough Bay in Co Down as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
Marine biologist Joe Breen of NIEA said the habitat is one of only a few in these waters.
“Maerl is nicknamed concrete seaweed — it is a very special habitat worthy of European protection,” he said.
“Biologically this is one of the most diverse marine habitats within the UK and other examples occur in southern England and Scotland.”
The maerl ‘reef’ provides a home for a rich array of marine wildlife and supports scores of rare and unique species.
“It’s the only known site in Northern Ireland for the orange northern starfish, an Arctic species which is normally found in much colder, deeper waters,” Joe said.
The habitat was only explored properly in 1999, he revealed.
“We always knew something was there but we didn't have the technology at that time to find out what was there,” he added.
Some of the surface sub-fossil was carbon-dated to 650 years, but Mr Breen said there was no reason to think some of the materials are not at least 4,000 or 5,000 years old.
The maerl grows just 0.5mm per year and scientists have discovered 251 different species in the area to date. Among them are lobsters, prawns and scallops.
Due to the freak tides, divers can visit the site for just 20 minutes per day. The tides help maerl flourish as they prevent silt.
Mr Breen said there were numerous potential risks to the area including dredging, spoil disposal, bottom trawling, coastal constructions and anchoring.
“The designation will mean close management from all the stakeholders who may have an impact on the site,” he said.