THE waters surrounding the Maidens Islands off the coast of Larne have been designated a marine Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
Environment Minister Alex Attwood announced this week that the sea and seabed around the islands are to be protected, including sandbanks, reefs and grey seals in the area.
The area adjacent to the Portrush Skerries and the Giants Causeway has also been designated a SAC, with protected features to include the numerous sea caves, sandbanks and reefs, and the harbour porpoise, the smallest of the whales and dolphins occurring off local coastlines.
Mr Attwood 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.
“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.