An ecosystem is the term used for an environment including all the living plants and animals and the non-living aspects such as water, soil, air etc. The study of how plants and animals interact with and are affected by their environment is called Ecology.
The shellfish in Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough are part of an ecosystem which includes the waters of the estuary, the weather in that region and the seabed and the many plants and animals that live alongside the shellfish.
Many animals and plants live in harmony with each other, some are dependent on others species for food or on seabed habitats for protection. Shellfish such as oysters and mussels rely on good water quality and plenty of plankton in the water for food as well as sandy/stony seabed for protection from being washed away by tidal currents.
It is important that this unique ecosystem is maintained and protected. Shellfish farmers who grow mussels and oysters depend on the ecosystem to function well for good growth in their stock. The other animals and plants in the ecosystem such as fish and seaweed also depend on the ecosystem to function well for their growth and survival.
It is the job of the Loughs Agency and other government departments to ensure that the ecosystems are not impacted or disturbed by the fishing activity or shellfish farming in Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough.
The Agency does this by monitoring specific components of the ecosystem such as the water quality, weather conditions, shellfish growth, plankton abundance, and abundance of other wild species.
This monitoring allows the Agency to determine if the ecosystem is functioning as it should be or if there are any problems occurring that may be causing any ecosystem disturbance. Mathematical computer models have been developed in the past to allow future predictions to be made based on the monitoring results. This allows different scenarios to be tested to ensure that any plans for new shellfish farms do not impact the ecosystem.
One such project was the Sustainable Mariculture in Irish Lough Ecosystems Project or SMILE project completed by Queen’s University Belfast funded by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Northern Ireland. Information on this project can be found on the following website.