Irish Sea: Wildlife Trust warns of 'marine disaster'
The UK government is "leaving the Irish Sea open to disaster" by delaying plans to create more marine conservation zones, an environmental charity has warned.
The Wildlife Trust said excluding two areas off Northern Ireland's shores put sea life at risk.
They want Slieve na Griddle and South Rigg to be protected zones.
But the NI Fish Producers' Association argue that these are prime fishing grounds and fishermen would suffer.
Slieve na Griddle and South Rigg are halfway between Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.
In January, the UK government's Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) which is responsible for these two areas, did not include them as dedicated conservation zones.
The government argued that such a move could have a "significant impact on Northern Ireland's fishing sector".
However, it intends to review that decision in the coming months.
A total of nine marine conservation zones have been proposed for the Irish Sea.
Two of them, Fylde and Cumbria Coast, off the English coast, have already been approved.
Marine conservation zone (MCZ) status restricts activities like dredging and trawling.
The Wildlife Trust said the two areas are home to Dublin bay prawns (nephrops) and ocean quahogs, a type of clam that can live for more than 500 years.
Emily Baxter from the trust said fisheries needed to recognise that conservation zones were good for both sea life and fishermen.
"We're not saying they (fishermen) would be banned outright (from fishing in marine conservation zones), but if we do want to conserve the special species, then it would make sense to restrict access," she said.
"Supporting sustainable fisheries, instead of encouraging overfishing and habitat destruction, would increase fish landings, generate more income and create more jobs in the sector," she said.
"If these areas are allowed to recover, there will be more of them (nephrops) and they can grow bigger."
However, the head of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers' Association, Dick James, said fishermen would "suffer" if Slieve na Griddle and South Rigg become dedicated conservation zones.
"Eight thousand tonnes (of nephrops) are trawled from the Irish Sea each year, it's a £20m industry," Mr James said.
"We've offered alternatives which don't leave us entirely clear of the issue, but the areas they've picked are the most intensely fished areas in the Irish Sea.
"In some of the areas we've put forward, the fisheries are not as intense. We're basically hoping that common sense will prevail and that there are alternatives, more diverse than the areas they've proposed in the first instance."
In 2013, 127 conservation zones were initially proposed throughout UK waters, after two years of negotiations between fishermen, conservationists and other sea users.
Twenty-seven zones have been designated so far, but the government is currently asking the public what they think about the creation of a further 23.
The consultation is due to end on 24 April.