A suite of new marine protected areas announced by Stormont 'mark the beginning of a new era to safeguard the future for our valuable marine wildlife' according to RSPB Northern Ireland.
The formal designation of four new marine protected areas will help protect a range of vulnerable species and habitats - ranging from black guillemots to ocean quahog and seagrass meadows.
One of the Marine Conservation Zones, an area off Rathlin Island, is particularly special. It marks the first of its kind in the UK to be set aside specifically to protect a seabird species - the black guillemot. This protected area will consider the specific needs of the amber-listed species and actively work towards improving the population and the habitat on which it relies. By using extensive data and expertise on seabirds and black guillemots in the area, RSPB NI has been instrumental in calling for this designation and also helped secure an extension to the proposed area to protect the full extent of the species' foraging grounds.
Three other marine conservation zones will protect seagrass meadows at Waterfoot, County Antrim, fragile sea pens and mud communities at Carlingford Lough, County Down and the ancient ocean quahog at outer Belfast Lough, County Antrim. Belfast Lough now protects a truly ancient species of marine clam - the ocean quahog - which is considered by science as one of the longest living species on our planet and can live to be over 500 years old.
While RSPB NI welcomes these new additions to the local and UK network of marine protected areas, it says there is still much to be done and many of our vulnerable marine wildlife and seabird species remain unprotected and in decline.
The charity says the future of our marine wildlife depends on 'meaningful and effective action' and will be calling for more protected areas to help conserve, sustain and recover our valuable and unique marine wildlife.