Marine Conservation Zones – Take part in our campaign!

Our recent Marine Conservation Zone campaign has now closed. Thank you to everyone who supported our call for greater protection of Northern Ireland’s seas. Keep an eye on our website for future updates about MCZs for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has outstanding marine wildlife and habitats which play a key role in how we all live. Our seas provide food, building materials and are a source of renewable energy. They also help to transport goods and create jobs. Whether you enjoy walking by the coast, relaxing on the beach or jumping into the water to dive, surf or kayak, our seas are a part of who we are.

More than half of Northern Ireland’s biodiversity - our different types of plants and animals - is found within the sea. However, despite the importance and variety of our marine species and habitats, many are damaged or declining. We need to ensure our seas receive proper protection and management so they can withstand the increasing demands we place on them.

In December 2015, the Department of the Environment (DOE) consulted on 4 new Marine Conservation Zones for Northern Ireland – in Carlingford Lough, Outer Belfast Lough, Waterfoot (off the Antrim coast) and Rathlin Island. The NI Marine Task Force ran a public campaign to raise awareness about the proposed Marine Conservation Zones and the benefits of protecting our seas.

Our campaign was a great success! Over 1450 people sent letters of support to the Department, calling for all four sites to be designated to help the recovery of our valuable seas.

All four sites have now been formally designated as Marine Conservation Zones by the Department of Agriculture, Environmnet and Rural Affairs (DAERA). The Department is currently assessing the need for further sites in our waters. We calling for an ambitious second round of Marine Conservation Zones to complete our network of protected areas and for management plans to be developed for each site. Read more about our asks for Marine Protection here.

What are Marine Conservation Zones?

Some areas of the coast and sea are protected - where human activities are managed to conserve important marine habitats and species. There are many different types of marine protected areas, each with different levels of management and protection. Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) are a new type of marine protected area to be introduced under the Northern Ireland Marine Act. These are areas to protect species, habitats and geological features of national importance, and will contribute to a UK wide marine network of sites.

Why do we need Marine Conservation Zones?

Marine Conservation Zones benefit our environment and our economy.With effective management, a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) will allow previously damaged habitats and wildlife to recover. Gradually, as the number of plants and animals increases, a 'spill over' of individuals from inside the MCZ will help to replenish the surrounding marine environment. For commercial species, this is a positive step towards sustainable fishing. Healthy, undisturbed areas with abundant wildlife will also promote tourism and recreational activities, as people are excited to see wildlife at its best.

A recent report commissioned by NIMTF found that a functional network of marine protected areas in Northern Ireland could provide as much as £54.5 million to the Northern Ireland economy. If protected, our seas could be worth between £163,000 and £164,000 per km2. This is much greater than estimates for English seas (between £98,000 and £100,000 per km2) and almost three times that of the estimates for Scottish seas (approximately £57,000 per km2). A well-managed network of protected areas in our seas can therefore lead to both conservation and economic benefits.

Credit: Dave Wall

Where are the proposed Marine Conservation Zones?

Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island supports a vulnerable population of black guillemots (Cepphus grille). The island’s cliffs are an important nesting site and the surrounding productive waters create feeding hotspots for their main prey items, sandeels and butterfish. Black Guillemots can dive up to 130 m to catch these fish, often staying underwater for over 2 minutes at a time!

The Rathlin Island MCZ has also been proposed to protect the only area of deep water seabed in Northern Ireland. At up to 250 m deep, these waters are some of the deepest in the UK. This extremely rare habitat may contain fragile cold water coral reefs and support endangered fish such as common skate.

An ancient underwater lagoon off the north face of Rathlin Island is another key feature of this proposed MCZ. The lagoon is believed to have once been a lake which flooded after sea level rise following the last ice age. This is a unique geological feature to Northern Ireland and the UK.

Credit: Fiona Lacey

Waterfoot Seagrass beds

Seagrass (Zostera marina) is a type of marine flowering plant that forms dense beds in sheltered areas. These underwater meadows stabilise the seabed and create refuges for many other marine animals. Seagrass beds are particularly important habitats as nursery areas for young fish, including commercial species like cod, plaice and haddock.

The proposed Waterfoot MCZ has a large seagrass bed which is one of the biggest in Northern Ireland. Seagrass habitats are declining throughout the UK, but the Waterfoot bed is still in good condition with a rich associated community of plants and animals.

Credit: Claire Goodwin

Outer Belfast Lough Ocean Quahog

Belfast Lough is home to an ancient population of one of our most incredible marine animals, the ocean quahog (Arctica islandica). This large clam lives buried in the sediment and can live for over 500 years! The population in the proposed Outer Belfast Lough MCZ is around 220 years old, surviving both World Wars and witnessing the launch of the R.M.S Titanic.

Ocean quahogs live buried in the sediment with only their siphons extended to the surface to filter small pieces of food from the water above. They can be found in water up to 500 m deep and are an important food source for cod. Proper protection for these unique animals would help to ensure that they continue to thrive in this area for many, possibly hundreds, of years to come!

Credit: RSPB NI

Carlingford Lough Seapens and white sea slug communities

The Carlingford Lough MCZ has been proposed to protect an important mud habitat which supports a wealth of important marine wildlife. Most notable are the rare fields of sea pens (Virgularia mirabilis), a type of soft coral that looks like feathers coming out of the seabed. These beautiful and incredibly fragile animals glow in the dark when disturbed!

The seabed also supports huge numbers of burrowing animals, including clams, heart urchins and fish. They create a complex system of tunnels which helps to draw oxygen into the mud, increasing the number of other species that can survive in this important mud habitat. These unique ecosystems are vulnerable to disturbance and protecting them will ensure they can continue to thrive into the future.

Credit: DOE Marine Division