Potential EU fines over mussels

By Mike McKimm
BBC NI Environment & Science Correspondent

Image caption,
Horse mussels are protected species

Strangford Lough in County Down is one of the most protected marine habitats in the UK, at the bottom of the Lough resides a community of Modiolus modiolus or horse mussels.

A complex and unique habitat depends on their existence and dozens of species are only there because of the mussels.

When it was discovered that human activity had damaged many of the mussel beds, the European Commission demanded, as a protected species, that they must be reinstated.

The Department of Environment and the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland hastily drew up a plan.

They would immediately put non-disturbance zones in place and start to restore the beds, with that promise they avoided the fines.

But little has actually happened since, there are still no protected zones and the restoration is years behind.

And when a recent situation update for the Northern Ireland Assembly's Agricultural Committee was cancelled, suspicions were aroused.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC managed to get hold of most of the paperwork that went between the Departments of Agriculture and Environment over the past 24 months.

Even a casual flick through the emails reveals what hasn't happened, it also reveals that civil servants are increasingly worried because they know they have fallen far behind or in some cases failed to deliver at all.

Again and again departmental members and their advisers admit that their failure to put the plan in place by now could lead to further proceedings by the commission and fines.

At one stage so little progress was made that the Department of Agriculture had spent nothing from its project budget in two years.

When they were warned that the budget may be removed as a result, one worried email the BBC has seen said "The Commission would hang us out to dry if we had to abandon the project for this reason". So they started spending.

Even as late as June last year, six years after the initial complaint was made, one civil servant warned: "If the Commission asks what progress has been made... the departments will be exposed".

This seems to have caused panic because immediately the Department of Agriculture agreed that it would bring in a compromise.

It would establish no-fishing zones by the end of 2009, but it did not and still hasn't.

The initial plan was to immediately set up non-disturbance zones in two areas of Strangford Lough.

This would stop fishing, diving, setting crab or lobster pots or anchoring in the protected areas, a simple task but they never appeared.

By now the Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister, Michelle Gildernew, had been warned in an internal briefing that doing nothing was not an option.

The brief simply advised that infraction proceedings would be initiated and fines imposed. A blunt warning and one that is repeated again and again in the documents.

In January 2009, the Environment Minister at the time, Sammy Wilson and Agriculture Minister Gildernew called a press conference at which they claimed they were riding to the aid of the horse mussels.

By then a restoration project was had begun although there were still no non-disturbance zones and today, they still don't exist.

In the last batch of emails and minutes of meetings the BBC has seen little has moved on.

The two departments are still arguing over what size the non-disturbance zones should be and where they should be, they can't even agree over whether lobster and crab fishing is damaging the mussel beds.

On the sidelines watching all of this are some of the Northern Ireland environmental NGOs.

You can't help feeling that the email comment "if the commission asked what progress has been made" is slightly irrelevant. They may already know.

The Northern Ireland tax payer is already smarting from a £65m fine in June from the commission over false farm subsidy claims.

The blame for that was laid at the steps of the Department of Agriculture. They and the Department of Environment could end up with at least as big a fine again if the Commission decides it doesn't like the way they've handled this issue.

Failure to properly protect and restore a damaged marine habitat could cost the Northern Ireland tax-payer tens of millions of pounds in fines from the European Commission.

The UK government has already been warned by the commission about the poor conservation and was threatened with fines after a complaint was made in 2003.

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