THE government is taking steps to protect the Antrim coast's equivalent of the 'Great Barrier Reef' - an under-sea landscape of seaweed corals set on submerged 'drumlins' near Cushendun.
Corals made up of calcified seaweed - known as maerl - are sitting on under-sea sandbanks running just off the coast for a few miles north and south between the north of Cushendun Bay to a point north of Cushendall, Moyle Council was told.
And there could be an impact for fishermen and boat users, Moyle Council has learned.
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency is proposing to give European Union recognition to the site by designating it a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) to conserve natural habitats of wild flora and fauna.
The Agency says the area contains "rare and threatened" habitat and they said they are currently responding to representations from various organisations including the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Association, North Coast Lobster Fishermen's Association, NI Scallop Fishermen's Association, Commissioners of Irish Lights and DARD (Fisheries Division).
An Agency report said: 'The competent authorities for this area are advised to manage human activities within their remit such that they do not result in deterioration or disturbance of this feature through for example: aggregate or maerl extraction; dredging or trawling with mobile fishing fear; dredging or disposal of dredge spoil or civil engineering or other projects or activities within or adjacent to this area that may lead increased turbidity, pollution or seabed smothering."
The Agency said the designation involves 'sandbanks which are slightly covered by seawater all the time' and 'reefs' are an additional feature of the site.
Said the report: 'The sandbank is comprised of relic drowned drumlins from the last ice-age overlaid with 2-3 metres high mega-ripples of sub-fossil maerl, much of which is dominated by living maerl.'
The report said fishing boats trawling nets through the area have the potential to cause damage to the sandbanks and also said creel fishing could also do harm.
The report also said that 'antifoulant' used for boat maintenance could also cause damage to the water environment if used carelessly.
Large commercial vessels could also be impacted particularly as the North Channel is a busy shipping lane.
The report said: 'Large vessels entering the Irish Sea using the shipping traffic separation scheme may be less than six kilometres away as they pass.
'The pumping of bilges, discharge of ballast water, accidental grounding or accidental oil or chemical spillage from commercial vessels could therefore all occur close to the SAC.
'Small recreational and fishing vessels also have the potential to cause deterioration of qualifying habitats and communities through fuel spillage and grounding..'
The report also said anchors and moorings could also cause damage.
The report added: 'Maerl beds have been shown to be sensitive to diffuse pollution, effluent discharge and eutrophication; however the exposure of the maerl beds to these pressures may be mitigated by the strong tidal currents and open coastal location.
'This mitigation does not however apply to other pressure which may be fatal to the live maerl, particularly physical disturbance that may lead to direct damage, increasing siltation, burial or extraction of the live maerl.
'High risk activities include fishing with mobile gear, including dredging and trawling.
'From data it appears that no vessels larger than 15 metres have fished this area in recent years. Smaller vessels have occasionally been seen dredging for scallops but until management measure are introduced to restrict the use of mobile fishing gear in this area it will remain an imminent high risk.'
The report said the beds were only first recorded in 1986.
The report went on to say: "The majority of fishing activity off the County Antrim coast is concentrated in waters further offshore as indicated in examination of data for vessels larger than 15 metres in length.
'Within the site boundary, the majority of commercial fishing is for lobster and brown crab using static gear although some less than 15 metres have been seen to occasionally trawl through the site hunting for scallop."
The report said sewage from Cushendun discharges into the site but said dives could not visually determine any significant change to the structure of the sandbanks.
At Moyle Council, Cushendall Sinn Fein councillor Oliver McMullan (pictured)wondered what the impact would be on people in the area and if it would lead to restrictions although he said restricting trawling nets in the small area under question would be appropriate.
Glens Sinn Fein councillor Paudie McShane had concerns that the scheme could impact on plans for Cushendall Marina.
An Environment Agency official has been invited to come to a Moyle Council meeting to give information on the proposals.