NI faces huge EU fines over Strangford Lough horse mussels
Failure to protect a special environment area could see Northern Ireland facing huge fines from Europe.
A formal complaint to the European Commission alleges there has been a "systematic and deliberate failure" to protect and restore a special habitat in Strangford Lough.
It is the second complaint about the same problem in just a few years.
It follows assurances by two government departments that they would restore and protect horse mussel beds in the lough.
But the organisation making the complaint claims this simply has not happened.
Both complaints have been made by the Ulster Wildlife Trust who first drew attention to the plight of the mussels in 2003.
The shellfish live on the mud bed of Strangford Lough.
Their presence creates a substantial and vital habitat (Modiolus reefs) for dozens of other species.
When it was discovered in 2003 that the reefs had been damaged by fishing activities, this was stopped only after the first complaint was made.
But other fishing activities were allowed to continue without an "appropriate assessment" being made, claim the Ulster Wildlife Trust.
Subsequent surveys of the reefs showed that in many cases the mussels were now dead.
This led to a restoration plan being set up in order to avoid a fine from Europe.
As the lough is an SAC (special area of conservation) it comes under the European Habitat Directive.
The Northern Ireland government realised it was breaching the directive and put the plan in place.
But, the trust said in its complaint, six years after the plan's formulation "little, if any, action has been taken by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development".
It is the government department charged with restoring and protecting the reefs.
In an attack on the department's integrity the complaint states: "We believe that this scenario reflects the department's disregard for its commitments to the European Commission and the Directive in general."
Heather Thompson, chief executive of the Ulster Wildlife Trust, told BBC News Online: "With the restoration plan having been put in place to stave off potential action from Europe in 2005, we are now totally cynical as to whether government ever intended to meet its obligations."
The BBC sought more information from both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment in Northern Ireland over its protection of the horse mussel reefs.
A Freedom of Information request produced some startling admissions.
An email from one Department of Environment official stated: "If the commission asked what progress has been made, the departments would be exposed."
Another admitted that if the European Commission discovered what little progress had been made, fines would be rapidly imposed. "The Commission would hang us out to dry," said the email.
But despite this clear understanding of the consequences, there has been little progress since. And it is this lack of progress that led to the second complaint.
"It seems ludicrous that our charity has to go to the European Commission again to get such an important and special site managed and protected properly," said Ms Thompson.
"The lough has been given numerous legal protections and designations due to its special features and ecology and our local government is responsible for ensuring we manage the lough properly."
As well as being an SAC, Strangford Lough is an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Ramsar (protected wetland) site, making it one of the most protected parts of Europe.
In their letter to the Commission, the Trust pointed out that after six years there is still no "total protection" for the remaining or damaged reefs, anchoring in the areas has not been stopped and that pot fishing is still not controlled properly.
It also pointed to vandalism of research sites and said that none of the restored sites had been returned to "Favourable Conservation Status".
An added problem is that the Department of Environment who police the lough, cannot force the sister Department of Agriculture to comply with the Habitats Directive.
In effect, the DoE is powerless to act - a quirk of the hurried legislation that set up the current Northern Ireland government.
The DoE minister Alex Attwood said his department was paying attention to the problem.
"As well as encouraging DARD to maintain the temporary ban on fishing with mobile gear, DoE has spent large resources on an extensive mapping and monitoring programme to determine the current range of Modiolus and their condition within Strangford Lough," he said.
He added that the DoE were making a concerted effort to restore the Modiolus reefs within the lough.
If the Department of Agriculture refuses to comply with the Habitats Directive it will be left to the Northern Ireland taxpayer to foot what could be a very substantial fine of millions of euros.
Some experts suggest that such a fine could quickly follow receipt of this second complaint. It may already be too late.