30/03/2006

Local conservation groups welcome Marine Bill plans

An alliance of conservation groups, the Marine Task Force Northern Ireland (MTF NI), has welcomed the publication of the UK government’s consultation on its Marine Bill.

However, the group said that Northern Ireland’s marine wildlife would be "left behind" unless local government is committed to being part of the UK framework.

Spokesperson for MTF NI, Dr James Robinson, said: "To date efforts to protect our magnificent marine wildlife have been feeble in Northern Ireland.

"We do not want Northern Ireland to be left behind when it comes to protecting our marine environment. We therefore want a commitment from the government here to include Northern Ireland during the development of the UK-wide framework for better managing and protecting our seas.”

The conservation groups point out that over half of Northern Ireland’s biodiversity is in the sea.

Northern Ireland's marine environment is home to thousands of species, including whales and dolphins, and the rarest breeding seabird in the UK, the roseate tern.

The environmental groups are concerned that current laws to protect this wildlife are piecemeal and often outdated. A situation made worse, by what the groups say is an "unsystematic and uncoordinated" approach to managing the marine environment in Northern Ireland that is administered by over 20 UK and local government agencies.

The environmental lobby view the UK Marine Bill as providing a unique opportunity to address these shortcomings, by putting in place systems to protect marine biodiversity, and establishing a new framework to govern the many interests now operating at sea.

Dr Robinson added: "Our marine wildlife needs better protection in the face of ever-increasing pressure on its habitats from overfishing, pollution, development, dredging, and other activities."

One of the MTF NI’s key demands is for a network of marine protected areas, which should encompass a representative range of habitats and species found in UK waters including nationally important sites for marine wildlife, not just those of European significance.

MTF NI hopes the discussions over the next few months will be followed quickly by a full Marine Bill in Parliament – followed by similar legislation in Northern Ireland.

The plans for a Marine Bill follow a consultation paper published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in England, in liaison with the devolved administrations.

The paper contains proposals for the strategic direction of policy development in five key areas. These are marine spatial planning, marine licensing, marine nature conservation, fisheries management and a Marine Management Organisation.

The government said it recognised the need to work together for a more coherent approach to the management of all UK marine waters and said that all agencies and departments concerned had been working closely with Defra to ensure that the proposals for the Bill addressed the relevant interests.

DoE Minister, Jeff Rooker, said: "Northern Ireland has a coastline to be proud of and we want to preserve that. We acknowledge the need for a better system to manage and protect the marine environment and which takes account of the needs of all users. We warmly welcome the issue of this consultation package and I would urge all of you with an interest in it to take the opportunity to respond and make your views known."

(SP/KMcA)

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