The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the NI Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) (see Sources below), with the cooperation of several other organizations, produced the first Northern Ireland (NI) State of the Seas Report in late January 2011. This report follows on the publication in 2010 of the UK-wide report entitled Charting Progress 2 – The State of UK Seas.
The collective work on the condition of the seas in the UK and NI is driven by the EC Marine Strategy Framework Directive, 2008. That Directive came into force on 15 July 2008 and requires: an assessment of the current state of UK seas by July 2012; a detailed description of what Good Environmental Status means for UK waters, and associated targets and indicators by July 2012; the establishment of a monitoring programme to measure progress toward Good Environmental Status by July 2014; and the establishment of a programme of measures for achieving Good Environmental Status by 2016. The Directive was transposed into UK law and came into force on 15 July 2010.
In addition, the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2009, was enacted to provide new arrangements for the sustainable management of activities and protection of resources in the UK’s marine area, including: a new marine planning system; a new system for licensing marine developments; a flexible mechanism to protect natural resources, including marine conservation zones with clear objectives; changes to the management of marine fisheries; and, a Marine Management Organisation to discharge these and other marine functions on behalf of UK Government. There is also a proposed Northern Ireland Marine Bill, which will be introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011.
To implement the various obligations under these laws and regulations, the first step was an assessment of the current status of the marine resources in the NI seas. That assessment is the focus of the State of the Seas report, which is digested here.
The seas around NI run along 650 km of coastline, from the River Foyle in the northwest to Newry in the southeast. They contain a strong diversity of plant and animal life, including harbour seals, whales, dolphins, various seabirds and waterfowl, salmon and eels. Fifty percent of NI’s biodiversity is found beneath the sea. The seas provide economic benefits to fishing communities, with 251 commercial vessels and a catch valued at £23.2 million, and possess many recreational and aesthetic values for tourists, including boating, bathing and scenic drives.
These valuable resources are generally in good health but they are subject to stresses from a variety of human activities and natural weather forces. Climate change will only add to these pressures and while the subject is not addressed directly, it is clear that those responsible for the Report recognize that climate change will play an important role in the future conditions and uses of these marine resources.
Biodiversity and Fisheries
Working with a number of agencies and organizations, including the Ulster Museum, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, and others, the NEA and AFBI used divers, video surveys and grab samples to identify the status of NI’s marine biodiversity. It is a rich diversity in part because of the mixing of warm waters from the south with cold Arctic waters along the NI coast and because of the strong tidal action that impacts on sediment habitats. Over 200 species of organisms, with up to 100,000 individuals, were identified in just 0.1 m2 of seabed sediment; some rocky shores contained 100 different species of seaweed.
Marine animals include two species of seals (the harbour seal is in decline), and 17 species of cetaceans (whale, dolphin, porpoise), all of which cetaceans are listed in the EC Habitats Directive as species of European interest in need of strict protection and monitoring. Marine turtles are at risk because they inadvertently become by-catch in lobster pots, drift nets and trawls.
Seabirds include puffin, razorbill and fulmar which species have experienced a 50% decline on Rathlin Island in the period from 1999 to 2007. One of the significant threats to the seabirds is the dwindling food supply available to them, largely the result of overfishing, pollution and possible climate change effects.
The overfishing also accounts for the continuing risk for reproductive capacity of the cod and whiting, both being harvested unsustainably. The wild salmon continues to suffer significant declines with commercial salmon catch falling from about 300-400 tonnes in the 1960s and 1970s to 6.3 tonnes in 2009. Similarly, the eel’s fishery in Lough Neagh has declined from 1,000 tonnes to 300-400 tonnes. In contrast, the plaice and Dublin Bay prawn (a significant commercial species) are being harvested sustainably. The status of fish species is monitored by examining landings at ports, examining catches onboard fishing vessels, and independent surveys, making the fish one of the heavily regulated species of marine life, in part because of the EU Common Fisheries Policy.
Another marker for the health of the marine ecosystem is the “food web” defined as the flow of energy and matter between marine plants and animals and the interaction between species that constitute the food web. Another way of describing the web is the term “food chain” where, in simplified terms, photosynthesis creates organisms that feed lower organisms that feed small fish that are eaten by larger fish that in turn are eaten by even larger fish or mammals. Much remains uncertain and unknown about the food web, and how it works, but we do know that human actions are adversely affecting the web. Trawling, dredging, and overfishing eliminate fish at the top of the chain, which in turn can lead to overabundance of smaller fish that deplete the organisms that they feed on. It is indeed an interconnected subsurface world out there.
Sewage treatment works are a major contributor to excessive nutrients entering waters, along with agricultural runoff, and the large investment in upgrading the sewage treatment pants is having an effect. Eutrophication has been on the decline over the past ten years because of the reduced inputs of nitrogen by almost 90% in places, and phosphorus by 78%. Only a few coastal areas where water is subject to restricted movement, such as inner Belfast Lough, the Lagan Estuary and the Quoile Pondage currently experience eutrophication.
While habitat destruction is the greatest threat to loss of biodiversity, the growing threat from invasive alien species comes in second. Alien species are considered animals and plants that have been introduced to an environment outside their natural range. Once introduced into the new environment, often by attaching to ships or hitch-hiking rides in cargo or ballast water, these species thrive and out-compete and sometimes wipe out native plants and animals. The most effective, but difficult, remedy is to monitor shipping operations and regulate discharge of ballast in NI waters. The report documents the several invasive alien species that have been found in NI coastal waters. An example is the Japanese wireweed. Dense stands of the wireweed reduce light for other species, restrict water flow, and allow sediment to accumulate and take up nutrients that native species rely on. The wireweed also clogs the intake pipes of boats and drifts ashore to cover eel grass meadows, taking away an internationally important bird feeding habitat.
Contaminants in Sediment, Biota and Bathing Waters
The most common contaminants in the marine environment include heavy metals (e.g., nickel and chromium), crude oil and its derivatives such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and synthetic hazardous substances such as organophosphates (insecticides) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Some are found naturally but many are discharged into the environment from manufacturing, pest control, burning fossil fuels, and run-off from agriculture. They can enter the environment by direct discharges to rivers and the seas, or from by deposition from the atmosphere.
With better regulations and monitoring regarding some of the human activities, and a decline in some of the most polluting industries, there has been a decrease in levels of heavy metals in sediments. In Belfast Lough, formerly a heavily industrialized area, the decline has been significant. Despite this improvement there remains areas with elevated levels of PCBs, chromium and pesticides.
Since shellfish bio-accumulate contaminants, and are widely eaten, they have to be watched closely, especially for faecal coliform and viruses that are found in sewage and agricultural pollution. Based on monitoring of shellfish waters, levels of toxins infrequently exceed thresholds considered unsafe, and there have been few instances of closures of shellfish harvesting areas.
There are twenty-four coastal bathing waters in NI, and they are subject to regulation under the EC Bathing Water Directive, generally based on the number of certain types of bacteria. In 2006 the Directive was amended to set tighter numerical standards with a mandatory, or minimum standard, and tighter guideline standards taking effect in 2015. While compliance changes from year to year, as an example, for 2009 two waters (Portrush East and Portballintrae) failed to comply with either standard, 11 complied with the minimum standard, and 11 met the tighter standard. Bathing waters often deteriorate after heavy rainfall as a result of discharges from combined sewer outlets and runoff from agricultural land. As a result, during dry summers 70% of waters meet the higher standard while in wet summers only 40-50% do. If summers do get wetter as a result of climate change, then we can expect much greater challenges in complying with the Directive’s tighter standards.(1)
While other aspects of the marine environment have shown improvements over the past ten years, in part due to increased regulation of polluting practices, that is not the case with marine litter. Litter is found in significant amounts and it is not diminishing. The main culprits are plastic (40-60%) and packaging (food wrappers, carrier bags, paper). The report suggests that litter can be reduced only by changes in behavior and attitude and reducing the litter at its source. Yet there is no discussion of the need for and possible legislation and enforcement against plastic bags in shops or packaging of products for retail sale. What also would be useful is an organized effort to voluntarily clean up the seas similar to what Tidy NI, in cooperation with the Belfast Telegraph, does in its spring cleanup of litter on land, including beaches. Funding from the government, or private companies, for this project would be needed.
The negative aesthetic value of litter — it is ugly — is clear, but it also must be recognized that litter produces actual harms to the environment and commerce. Large items of trash can damage fishing gear and even vessels; smaller pieces can block intakes. Plastics are very slow to break down in the environment and when they do the smaller pieces persist in the marine environment for many years and absorb chemical substances in the seas. Wildlife becomes entangled in litter and even eats it, to their detriment. Ninety-six percent of dead fulmars had pieces of plastic in their stomachs.
The source of marine litter is no secret: beach visitors, fishing vessels, fly-tipping, illegal dumping by ships and small craft at sea, and CSO discharges. Some of this disposal is directly into the sea, and some into rivers where the offending material travels to the sea.
The report suggests that the scope of the litter problem in NI is not as extensive as in the rest of the UK. According to the report, a survey by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) in 2009 found 1,775 items of trash per kilometer in NI compared to UK average of 1,849 items/km. However, the report does not mention that the MCS survey figures for 2009 represent an 89% increase from 2008 for litter in NI.
The report covers several other impacts on the marine environment, including seabed integrity, hydrographical conditions, marine archaeology, energy and underwater noise, and ports and harbours.
As part of an island, NI relies heavily on its ports for commercial shipping and recreational travel. About 27 million tones of cargo and 2.1 million domestic passengers passed through NI ports in 2009. The cargo represents 95% of NI external trade. Perhaps this commercial importance explains why the report is very thin in discussing the impacts of ports on any strategy to protect our marine environment. For example, the short section ends with an abstract call for managing port activities “in the context of sustainable development.” Yet there is no discussion of how this might be done, and no acknowledgement of the reliance on fossil fuels or the contribution of the port activities to greenhouse gas emissions.
Marine archaeology covers the study of past human interaction with the marine environment including shipwrecks, submerged prehistoric landscapes, fish traps, mills and ports. The 8,000-year-old submerged forest and medieval fish trap below Strangford Lough, the 7th century tidal mill on Rathlin Island, and the 2,600 historic wrecks along the NI coast provide a sense of what life was like in NI 7,000-14,000 years ago, including the trade patterns that existed between NI and the rest of the world. Much more research is required to fully assess these sites, especially before they are further eroded or destroyed by human activities such as cable and pipe installation, trawling, oil and gas drilling, extraction of construction materials (e.g., sand), and offshore renewable energy projects. This work is especially needed because marine archaeology is not covered by the EC Marine Strategy Directive and relies on local protection efforts.
The seabeds along the coast consist of mixed coarse sediment, sand and mud, with coarse materials found in strong tidal areas and mud in sheltered areas. About two-thirds of the seabeds are found in shallow water, less than 100 metres deep. The seabeds are important as their shape and nature affect waves and currents, and animals and plants living along the seabed are valuable sources of food for other species in the food web. Important commercial opportunities, such as fishing, dredge disposal, extraction of sand and aggregates for construction, and renewable energy facilities depend on seabeds. At the same time, these activities present risks to the seabeds by disturbing and changing the nature and configuration of the seabeds that in turn reduces their biodiversity and can shift the balance between species feeding on the beds and on the surface.
The report also notes that traces of radionuclide released form Sellafield are detectable throughout the seabeds and concludes that the concentrations are too low to significantly affect seabed integrity. There is no data on the levels found, nor any discussion of what constitutes a significant impact.
Hydrographical conditions refer to the way in which the coastal zone has been altered by human activities with impacts on waves, tides and currents. The activities that affect the coastline include navigation, flood protection, reclamation, recreation and development, and, increasingly, renewable energy projects. These human activities can remove intertidal habitats and alter circulation, tidal patterns and water chemistry. Climate change is likely to have a significant impact on the conditions of the coastlines, especially with rising sea levels, and a coordinated, strategic approach to managing the coastline will become increasingly important.
Underwater noise can interfere with biologically relevant signals that some species depend on to search for food, to avoid predators, and to communicate with mates. Noise can also impair hearing organs of species. The source of interfering noises can be natural storms and waves, but also pile driving or other construction noises and it may increase with the developing alternative energy technologies such as the marine current turbine installed in Strangford Lough. Information on these impacts is limited and more work needs to be done to define the extent of the impacts and ways for reducing any such impacts.
The report provides a solid summary of what we understand about the various resources in our marine environment, how human activities in particular make use of and at times abuse these resources, and what further research and surveying we need. Generally the marine environment is in healthy shape. Investment of £136 million in wastewater treatment plants has been instrumental in reducing nutrients and heavy metals from entering the marine environment. Some fish, like Dublin Bay prawns, are being fished sustainably while others are not, such as cod and whiting. Marine litter remains a serious problem. Managing the seas is more difficult in NI because a number of government departments and agencies have responsibility for different aspects of monitoring and controlling activities that impact on the marine resources.
Throughout the report the governmental agencies are seen to rely on various NGOs, including Tidy NI, the RSPB, the Ulster Museum and others, for the surveying and monitoring that are critical to our understanding and assessment of the marine environment. With substantial cuts in the NI budget, the agencies are looking toward the NGOs to increase their participation in this critical work, at the very same time that the agencies are cutting their funding of the NGOs. These are not encouraging signs for environmental protection in NI.
As a final note, the Report includes a set of high-quality photographs that most effectively convey a sense of the scope, beauty and complexity of Northern Ireland’s marine resources. The organizations that produced the report deserve congratulations for paying attention to this critical component that helps to illustrate, and ease, the technical discussions.
(1) The revised Directive allows for “active management” of bathing waters, which is reported to include the surprising provision that where heavy rain is predicted and bathers are warned of increased risk of poor water quality, then samples taken around these events may be discounted.
The Northern Ireland State of the Seas Report, edited by Professor C.E. Gibbon for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the NI Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), January 2011. AFBI is a Non-Departmental Public Body under the Department of Agriculture and Regional Development (DARD) that carries out high technology research and development, statutory, analytical, and diagnostic testing functions for DARD and other Government departments, public bodies and commercial companies.
EC Marine Strategy Directive, 2008. Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive). OJ L 164, 25.6.2008, p. 19–40
Statutory Instruments, 2010 No. 1627, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION MARINE MANAGEMENT, The Marine Strategy Regulations 2010.
Marine Conservation Society UK
“British beach litter levels highest on record,” The Guardian, 8 April 2009
See the Interview with James Robinson of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the “Podcast” section of irish environment (November 2010) on biodiversity and the need for protection of the NI seas to sustain the bird populations. Also see in the current March issue, the Interview with John McMillen, Director of the NI Environment Agency, on the close working relationship between the Agency and NGOs in NI and the challenges in funding of the NGOs.