Four new protected marine areas proposed in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is to get four new protected marine areas to conserve important habitats and species, including one of the slowest growing shellfish in the world.
They are at Rathlin Island, at the mouth of Belfast Lough, part of Red Bay at Waterfoot, County Antrim, and a section of Carlingford Lough.
In Belfast Lough, the area has been picked to conserve the Ocean Quahog, a type of clam which takes hundreds of years to grow and can reach 500 years of age.
The proposed Marine Conservation Zones are out for public consultation until next spring.
At Rathlin, the entire island and the seas around it are covered.
It is intended to conserve the black guillemot which is on the amber list of the Birds of Conservation Concern Ireland.
The area has also been included because of the deep tidal waters and the submerged lagoons and sea arches found in them.
At Red Bay in Waterfoot, County Antrim, it is to protect a healthy sea grass site which is an important nursery for juvenile fish.
And in Carlingford Lough, the target species are sea-pens - a fern-like underwater animal - and white sea slugs both of which occur in high densities.
The proposed sites have been backed by the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force, a coalition of 10 environmental groups.
Spokesperson Rebecca Hunter said the seas off the coast were home to "some of the most unique and important marine wildlife" and the zones would contribute to the "protection and recovery of our valuable seas".
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, who helped launch the proposed zones, said the move was "an important step".
"As well as protecting nationally important marine wildlife, the zones will also protect geological features in these waters," he said.