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Scientists in major project to map our coastal seabed

Scientists are uncovering the secrets of the deep in a major project mapping a huge swathe of seabed stretching along the north coast of Ulster.

The initiative begins next month and will probe the seabed from Rathlin Island in the east to Tory Island off the coast of Co Donegal in the west.

The joint project is being carried out by the Marine Institute of Ireland with the UK Coastguard and is expected to result in some fascinating maps of the seabed in a band three nautical miles wide.

The Joint Irish Bathymetric Survey Project follows on from extensive mapping around the coasts of the Republic that has already yielded fascinating results, according to Dr Peter Heffernan, chief executive of the Marine Institute.

It's the largest mapping project of its kind in the world and has revealed that 90% of the Irish Republic is land beneath the waves, he explained.

"It stretches hundreds of miles out into the ocean and this mapping project means that politicians and other people will be able to visualise that," he said.

The end result could be an atlas of the lands beneath the surface of the ocean, linking into a proposed mapping scheme for all the marine areas around the European Union, he added.

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"I think that will be beneficial in getting people to grasp the enormity of what is under the water and appreciate how significant that resource is for the whole island," he said.

And he expects the survey of the north coast to uncover a whole aspect of Northern Ireland that has never been appreciated before.

"It will produce beautiful hydrographic quality charts of a band of land near the coast in that stretch," he said.

The survey comes as the European Union completes a lengthy consultation on a Green Paper aimed at coming up with an integrated approach to the marine environment.

Dr Heffernan says it is now clear that policies on shipping, fishing and tourism can't be formulated in isolation but must be drawn up with a view to the wider effects on the environment.

The Green Paper looks at the interaction of human influences on the oceans with the effects of climate change. For example, overfishing of cod stocks has come at a time when the southernmost fringe of the cod distribution has moved north away from the UK in response to increases in sea temperatures.

The seas have heated up by more than a degree centigrade over the last 50 years and some new species are moving into UK waters that were never there before, he said.

"There are now sardines and anchovies in the North Sea and they wouldn't have been there 15 years ago."

Meanwhile, the North West Passage in Canada is open to shipping this year as the sea ice melts and prey species of many of our fish have moved as much as 600 nautical miles north.

But it's not all about tightening our belts and cutting down on fishing in the future, Dr Heffernan stresses.

There could be opportunities out there in the future that could provide new business for coastal communities, even if the currently popular fish are protected.

"Ireland could take more advantage of its geographical location close to Europe's most productive fishing grounds.

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