An ecosystem is the term for a community of living plants and animals which interact with non-living elements such as water, soil and air in the environment around them. Ecology is the study of how plants and animals are affected by their environment.
The shellfish in Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough belong to an ecosystem which includes estuary waters, regional weather, the seabed, and the plants and animals that live alongside the shellfish.
Many animals and plants live in harmony with each other. Some are dependent on others species and habitats for food or protection. Shellfish such as oysters and mussels rely on good water quality and plenty of plankton, as well as sandy or stony seabed for protection.
Shellfish farmers who grow mussels and oysters depend on a well-functioning ecosystem to develop their stocks. Animals and plants such as fish and seaweed also depend on the ecosystem for their growth and survival.
It is essential that this unique ecosystem is maintained and protected.
In 2007, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s SMILE (Sustainable Mariculture in northern Irish Lough Ecosystems) programme was completed to assist the management and development of the aquaculture sector. It also produced a system for examining the environmental impact of aquaculture on Northern Ireland’s five sea Loughs.
Due to funding constraints and uncertainty over shellfish management at that time, Lough Foyle was not prioritised. As a result, the SMILE Foyle model lacks the detail of those developed for the other four sea loughs.
What is the role of the Loughs Agency?
Loughs Agency’s job is to ensure that fishing activity and shellfish farming do not harm the ecosystems in Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough. This responsibility also extends to other government departments.
We monitor specific parts of the ecosystem such as the water quality, weather conditions, shellfish growth, and the abundance of plankton and other wild species. This allows us to determine if the ecosystem is functioning as well as it should be.
Computer models have been developed in the past, allowing for predictions based on our monitoring results. This helps to ensure that plans for new shellfish farms do not impact the ecosystem.
In 2010, we developed the Aquaculture and Shellfisheries Management Strategy for Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough. It aims to bring about the sustainable development of aquaculture and shellfisheries for the social, economic and environmental benefit of local communities.
Loughs Agency committed to developing a Wild Shellfish and Aquaculture Management Plan for the Foyle and Carlingford catchments. It proposes a sustainable, evidence-based system of management for aquaculture and shellfisheries while ensuring a balance between economic and environmental considerations.
The EASE (EnhancedApplication of the SMILE Ecosystem) project was developed to examine the sustainable expansion of shellfish aquaculture in Lough Foyle. The benefits of mussel and oyster cultivation include providing habitat for other species, enhancing biodiversity and reducing phytoplankton concentrations. But this is a complex issue and important social aspects need to be considered, including conservation of wild species, fisheries, and tourism.
EASE was intended to make improvements and additions to the SMILE model and to aid sustainable fishery management. It will allow managers and policy makers to investigate the potential impact of decisions in advance. It will be vital in ensuring that aquaculture is developed in an environmentally sustainable manner.
The specific objectives of the EASE project were:
The application of EASE will:
EASE results suggest that nutrient-loading into Lough Foyle is mostly associated with agricultural activities. This means that measures addressing potential non-compliance with the Water Framework Directive would need to focus on changes to land use and discharge control.
Controlling various inputs is difficult, expensive, and can have significant social consequences. Integrating a thriving shellfish industry into the lough allows traditional catchment activities to flourish while taking advantage of the important ecosystem services that bivalve filter-feeders supply.