Northern Ireland

Mussels in protection racket

horse mussels
Image caption Hundreds of species depend on the horse mussels in Strangford Lough for survival

A £7m fine and more for every day that horse mussels in Northern Ireland are not protected.

That is what could be on the cards in a few weeks time following a complaint to Europe over an alleged breach of the EU Habitats Directive.

The complaint is over the protection and restoration of reefs of horse mussels on the bed of Strangford Lough.

They are one of the main reasons why the Lough enjoys some of the most stringent legislation in Europe.

Its unique habitat includes hundreds of species that depend on the mussels for their survival.

When, on closer inspection, it was discovered that many of the mussels were dead because of human interference, an initial complaint was made to Europe.

To avoid fines a plan was put forward to protect the mussels and to try and help the remaining ones to regenerate the reefs. That was in 2003.

But despite repeated promises, not enough was done, according to some scientists and lobby groups. The promised non-disturbance zones were created and a £1m project failed to help the mussels recover.

The Ulster Wildlife Trust took a second complaint to Europe late last year and now the Departments of Environment and Agriculture have to meet with the European Commission to explain themselves.

But not before the matter was discussed in the Northern Ireland Assembly. One of the criticisms has been that the two departments don't seem to be able to work together. Files that the BBC has seen suggest that when the Department of Environment make a suggestion it was often ignored by the Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture implement fishing regulations and controls in Strangford Lough. Environment tries to ensure everyone follows the rules of the EU Habitats Directive and protects the environment.

But as Anna Lo, the chairperson of the assembly's environment committee, explained the two departments are not getting along.

"The two departments haven't really been working together enough," she said.

"They have different remits and different goals. One is protecting the natural environment and the other is protecting the economy. When they don't work together the problem is in implementing the restoration plan."

And that is a big problem for Environment Minister Alex Attwood. It is his department that will get the blame if we get fined yet he cannot force the agriculture department to do what he says.

"We are running close to huge infraction fines, starting at £7m and going upwards", admitted Mr Attwood.

"That is why I have tried to prevail upon the department of agriculture. We are making progress, that what we are proposing in terms of no fishing and restoration is the right way forward. That is a work in progress."

Way forward

By now the two departments are supposed to have restored the mussel reefs to a sustainable level, imposed non-disturbance zones and brought in legislation to protect the areas involved. But all of that is still to happen nine years after they promised Europe it would.

If Europe decides fines are unavoidable it will be the Northern Ireland tax payer who picks up the bill. And that will not be good PR for the Ulster Wildlife Trust who made the complaint.

"We feel that we have waited and waited, that we have been very transparent, that we have given them every opportunity to act but the action hasn't happened", said UWT chief executive Heather Thompson.

"Now we are in a situation where Europe has had to intervene to get things to happen and go forward and we've been forced into that situation."

It is not as if the two departments did not know what needed to be done. A DOE email the BBC read in 2010 commented upon the lack of action.

An official wrote "....if the commission asked what progress has been made the departments will be exposed".

Another email (written in 2007) admits that the foot-dragging could lead to fines. But five years later little or no progress has taken place.

The huge fines have been making all the headlines. But the reality lies deep under Strangford Lough.

Horse mussels reefs have been damaged or destroyed and no amount of fines can replace those or help the species that rely on them for survival.

And at the minute they have little hope of any legal protection from government departments who cannot agree on a way forward.