Attwood announces two new marine Special Areas of Conservation

Environment Minister Alex Attwood has announced two new marine Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) including the first in the UK to protect the harbour porpoise.

The areas to be designated include the sea and seabed surrounding the Maidens Islands off Larne and those adjacent to the Portrush Skerries and Giant’s Causeway.

The protected features at the Maidens SAC include sandbanks, reefs and grey seals, while the Skerries & Causeway SAC includes numerous sea caves as well as sandbanks and reefs – and protection for the harbour porpoise, the smallest of the whales and dolphins occurring off our coasts.

Announcing the designations today, the Minister said: “These two sites represent the completion of the programme to identify and protect those areas of our coastal waters which are of international importance for their marine habitats and biodiversity. They demonstrate my Department’s ongoing commitment to protecting our seas and the wildlife and ecosystems that they support.”

Commenting on the inclusion of the harbour porpoise at the Skerries and Causeway SAC the Minister said: “It has long been recognised that the waters off our North Coast are important for harbour porpoise and this designation confirms that their numbers in this area are significant throughout the year. I hope this encourages people to visit the area to get a glimpse of these beautiful animals.”

Concluding the Minister added: “This announcement again demonstrates the scale of our natural heritage and the need to protect and positively develop it. In the Autumn, the Assembly will debate the consideration stage of the Marine Bill, a key legislative mechanism to protect our marine and seas. The Bill is important as it is but it can go further. I will return to my Executives colleagues with ways and means to enhance the bill. I hope I will win their backing.”

Extensive seabed surveys (which began in the 1990s and still continue) have been thoroughly analysed and assessed. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has used this information to identify for special protection the best examples of our marine habitats and species. Those of highest quality are classified as SACs and added to Europe’s Natura 2000 Network of protected sites.

The two new sites compliment previously designated marine SACs including Strangford Lough, Rathlin Island, Red Bay and Murlough Bay (Dundrum) and complete the Northern Ireland suite of European protected sites. Designation limits only those human activities likely to damage the protected features.

Those wishing to learn more about the marine life around the Antrim Coast can do so by visiting NIEA’s Coastal Zone Centre at Bath Road, Portrush. In addition to the static displays and videos on show, many visitors manage to see harbour porpoises and some even see basking sharks from the Centre’s viewing platform which overlooks the Skerries. A film on NIEA’s marine survey work is currently showing at Titanic Belfast.