Northern Ireland

Fishermen call for sand dredging action on lough

Tonnes of Lough Neagh sand piled high at the loughshore on the outskirts of Toomebridge. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Tonnes of Lough Neagh sand piled high at the loughshore on the outskirts of Toomebridge. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

FISHERMEN have voiced concern about the continued dredging of sand from Ireland's biggest lake.

The intervention by Lough Neagh fishermen comes after charity Friends of the Earth confirmed it is to take legal action against the Department of Environment after it failed to stop unauthorised sand extraction.

A year ago environment minister Mark H Durkan wrote to sand traders asking them to halt their activities for which they have no planning permission.

However, since then sand traders have lodged an appeal with the Planning Appeals Commission and continue to pump thousands of tonnes of sand from the lough each day to sell on to the construction industry.

It is understood the environment minister could have ordered a stop notice but instead issued a less rigid enforcement notice.

Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-Operative chairman Pat Close has claimed sand dredging has damaged fish stocks and the lough's habitat.

He said the practice was something fishermen “have had genuine concerns about for number of years”.

“Our main concern in all of this would be to protect certain areas of habitat that are still relatively undisturbed,” he said.

Mr Close said that there are concerns that as sand becomes more scarce traders have turned their attention to “sensitive” areas of the lough, particularly along its north and western shoreline, affecting fish life.

He claimed that sand dredging firms have ignored pleas to stay out of “sensitive areas”.

While claiming fishermen had “no inclination to see the demise of sand extraction on Lough Neagh” they believed unregulated dredging must be addressed.

“I think there has been an increase (in extraction) in those areas and that has maybe reflected by the stock piling of sand you can see around the shores of the lough,” he said.

He said that commercial fishermen have reported that a large amount of underwater sand banks, which offer food and shelter to some species, have been decimated by sand extraction.

“Our concern is that these sensitive areas are protected and I would be of the view that there (needs to be) a precautionary approach to this".

He said local fishermen are “very clear about what has been happening on the western shore of the lough in recent years”.

He also said there is an “onus” on Mr Durkan to take on board our concerns” of fishermen.

It has also emerged that the co-operative withdrew from talks with sand traders and representatives of the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure earlier this year due to a lack of progress.

The co-opertive was set up in 1965 to represent the interests of local fishermen and acquired outright control of the Toome Eel Fishery in 1972.

It is currently Europe’s largest wild eel fishery and produces 16 per cent of the continent's wild eels.

More than 220 people are licensed to fish for eels commercially on a seasonal basis.

The co-operative also owns the lough’s scale fishing rights.