I would like to congratulate the Belfast Telegraph for publishing the recent series of features on the state of our marine environment. I am delighted that the Belfast Telegraph devoted so much attention to a range of issues impacting on the marine life in Northern Ireland.
Your environment correspondent Linda Stewart was right to point out that for many years we have neglected our rivers, lakes and seas. Industrial and farming pollution have caused a great deal of damage and overfishing has decimated the stock in our rivers and seas. Greater emphasis on environmental protection is overdue and so I welcome these articles to raise public awareness. Northern Ireland is already far behind other regions in these Islands in regards to marine management and I fear that if we do not provide challenging targets then we will fall farther behind.
It is essential that the Executive places a higher priority in its Programme for Government in the protection and enhancement of our natural environment for long-term sustainability to ensure that our generation and those to come will enjoy good quality water in our rivers and lakes. We have been blessed with a wide range of wildlife, some indigenous to Northern Ireland and we must protect these species to maintain an equilibrium in our ecosystems.
The Assembly’s Environment Committee recently completed the clause-by-clause scrutiny stage of the impending Marine Bill and the Department has amended a number of clauses to strengthen the Bill on the recommendation of the committee. However, even though the committee did not support my suggestion as the Chair of the Committee for an additional clause to establish an independent Marine Management Organisation (MMO), it put forward an amendment to potentially enhance the cross-departmental coordination for the implementation of the legislation which covers six different departments.
Our marine habitat plays an extremely important part of Northern Ireland, but having so many agencies with different roles and responsibilities makes it harder to protect it. By having a single agency in the Marine Management Organisation, we can ensure that there is sustainable management as well as having one set of rules and regulations for all our waters.
We have already seen what can happen if we do not have a streamlined system for protecting our marine habitat with the Strangford Lough horse mussel. The failure of the several Departments who have responsibility for the marine environment to work together to protect the horse mussel has led to the possibility of huge European fines being imposed on us.
While having a new piece of marine legislation come before the Assembly is a great step forward, it could be a missed opportunity without a Marine Management Organisation. In Northern Ireland, we are desperately trying to play catch up with other regions when I want us to be leading the way on many issues including marine protection.
I am disappointed that the Environment Minister has backtracked on his support for a Marine Management Organisation; I am however preparing an amendment from the Alliance Party for it to be included into the legislation when it comes back for further debate in the Assembly. I feel it is essential that the issue should have the opportunity for a wider debate in the Assembly.
The problem of a lack of joined up approach to our marine habitat is indicative of our Executive and can be seen elsewhere such as on children’s issues or flood prevention. However I hope that the other parties will support my proposal to solve a problem in this one area and show that they care about the future of our marine environment.