To understand the value of Northern Ireland’s seas, look no further than Strangford Lough, its single marine nature reserve. The lough’s waters and shores are home to 1,500 species of plant and animal life. Science is also revealing more of the marine environment off Rathlin Island, where 27 entirely new types of sponge have been discovered.
Northern Ireland’s coast covers five wetland reserves protected by the Ramsar Convention, six special areas of conservation, and eight special protection areas for wild birds.
The management of the sea has traditionally been less organised and more complex than that of the land. That legal landscape has become more complicated with the transfer of fisheries policy to the Europe and the devolution of some marine policy to Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Under the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive, European seas must have good environmental status by 2020, with coastal waters meeting that standard by 2015.
Executive ministers agreed in March 2008 to create new marine legislation for Northern Ireland. This would sit alongside the Marine and Coastal Access Act (passed by Parliament in 2009) and the UK-wide Marine Strategy Regulations (approved in 2010).
Northern Ireland is now three years behind the rest of the UK, due to delays in the last Assembly term. Three environment ministers held office and the DUP has opposed the concept of a marine management organisation (MMO), proposed by Westminster. Parliament’s 2009 Act mostly covers England and Wales, where it established an MMO. A similar Marine (Scotland) Act was enacted on 10 March 2010.
A Department of the Environment consultation on a Marine Bill took place between April and July 2010 and found that interest groups were seeking flexible, simple and clear processes. The Executive finally gave the go-ahead for the Bill in December 2010. It was presented to the Assembly by Environment Minister Alex Attwood on
21 February this year and passed its second stage, without a vote, on 5 March. Its committee stage finished on 6 July and a consideration stage debate is likely in the autumn.
The Bill sets out how the Northern Ireland inshore region should be managed i.e. out to 12 miles from the high water mark and back up every estuary, river or channel where the tide flows.
Marine plans are to be prepared, by the department, for all parts of the inshore region and must comply with the UK Marine Policy Statement. A plan must be reviewed within three years of its adoption, and then at least every six years until 2030.
Individuals and organisations can challenge a plan or an amendment to the plan by taking action in the high court. A marine plan can also be withdrawn if the UK Environment Secretary lodges an objection.
Separately, the department can designate marine conservation zones (MCZs) on two grounds:
• conserving species of marine flora and fauna (particularly if they are rare or threatened); or
• conserving the diversity of marine flora or fauna, habitat, or features of geological or geomorphological interest.
MCZs must be agreed with the Environment Secretary. The zones may also include historic or archaeological features such as wrecks, and the department ultimately wants to create a network of conservation sites at sea.
Public bodies must carry out their work in a way that “best furthers … or least hinders” the MCZ’s objectives, but can apply to the department for exemptions. Breaking bye-laws will result in fines up to £5,000.
The DoE will issue general marine licences. Decisions on electricity generation licences rest with DETI but the procedure will run in parallel with that for the marine licence. Where only one licence application has been received, the process must pause until the other licence application is received.
During the second stage debate, Alex Attwood pointed out that the marine environment is “three-dimensional and dynamic” and acknowledged the dangers of working at sea. He personally wanted to see an MMO, a goal shared by Environment Committee Chair Anna Lo, but was unable to obtain Executive approval.
Lo welcomed a Civil Service marine co-ordination group but stressed the need for results, specifically “comprehensive protection of our seas while maximising their economic and social potential.” She and SDLP MLAs also highlighted the need for all-island co-operation.
Simon Hamilton, speaking for the DUP, said that economic considerations should be “to the fore as well as environmental concerns” and warned against an “overzealous” approach. He rejected an MMO as an unaccountable quango. Sinn Féin’s Cathal Boylan wanted the Bill to be ready to be implemented by the time it received royal assent.
UUP spokesman Danny Kinahan strongly welcomed the Bill but wanted to see an independent advisory committee established. Kinahan said it would be “a lawyer’s dream” and Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, a barrister, went through it methodically. He claimed that it was open to legal challenge, and also warned that fishermen could face heavier regulation in Northern Ireland inshore waters than elsewhere.
“Business as usual is not an option,” Green Party MLA Steven Agnew warned. He emphasised that renewable energy had to respect wildlife and pointed out the costs of the current “unwieldy” management structures. The department’s former Deputy Secretary, Tony McCusker, had estimated the cost of marine management at £7.1 million per annum; an MMO could cost £650,000 to set up and save £250,000 annually.
Anna Lo was “quite disappointed” by the absence of the MMO and emphasised the need for joined-up government across the six marine-related government departments. Interest groups, giving evidence to the committee, have been critical of the “vagueness of some wording” and a lack of clarity on the timing and costs involved.
Renewables sector seeks clarity
The Northern Ireland Renewable Industry Group (NIRIG) has called for the marine policy statement to support the sector’s sustainable development i.e. balancing the economy, society and the environment. UUP committee member Tom Elliott has pointed out that, in practice, one of those goals has to take priority over the other.
NIRIG wants to ensure that conservation zones do not conflict with constructing and operating renewable energy plant. It is also seeking a streamlined process for approving the onshore infrastructure and the offshore plant, as already occurs in Britain.
The group has also found that the common law right of navigation and fishing is not included in the Bill, although this is covered in the legislation for Great Britain. Fishermen have often objected to offshore energy developments, and the industry wants clarity in this contentious area of the law.