A Stormont minister is set to propose Northern Ireland’s first environmental improvement plan.
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Andrew Muir made the announcement during a debate on a motion in the Assembly calling for a new management structure to protect Lough Neagh.
Alarm was sparked last summer when the huge freshwater lake in the centre of Northern Ireland was beset by noxious blooms of blue green algae.
It is the biggest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland, and supplies 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water and sustains a major eel-fishing industry.
Noxious blooms covered large parts of the lough across the summer, and also affected other waterways and beaches in the region.
Nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertiliser running off fields is believed to be a major contributory factor.
The spread of the invasive zebra mussel species is also understood to have played a role, as they have made the water clearer, allowing more sunlight to penetrate, stimulating more algal photosynthesis.
Climate change is another factor cited, with the highest ever water temperature at Lough Neagh recorded last June.
A cross departmental water quality steering group is currently drafting recommendations to tackle blue green algae in Lough Neagh.
Three Sinn Fein MLAs brought a motion to the recently restored Stormont Assembly calling for action to protect the lough.
It called on the Executive to put in place a new management structure and plan for the management, protection and promotion of the lough.
The Assembly also heard calls for Lough Neagh to be taken into public ownership.
Mr Muir and Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd were both present in the chamber for the debate as the motion.
Responding Mr Muir revealed he is set to meet with the owner of the lough bed Lord Shaftesbury, and said it would be in a “frank and open manner”.
The minister said he was encouraged to see agreement across the chamber as well as society on the need for collective action.
He said he visited Lough Neagh with his first few days in office, and has made a commitment to go back regularly.
“This is just the beginning of my engagement with stakeholders and I intend to regularly seek views and work together to take forward evidence based solutions to tackle blue green algae and secure long term water quality improvements,” he told MLAs.
“While we all recognise that it will take significant time, investment, commitment and working in partnership to make the improvements needed, we all wish to see those improvements affected.
“The scale of the problem should not prevent us from taking action now, and we need to move from debating these motions to taking action.
“As minister I am willing and ready to lead, to drive action, to co-ordinate but may I say, the responsibility is upon us all in this chamber and in the Executive to turn the situation around.”
Mr Muir also described the blue green algae as a wider issue than simply in Lough Neagh.
“In the next few weeks I will bring to the Executive a new environment strategy which I will propose is adopted as Northern Ireland’s first environmental improvement plan,” he said.
“This will take a strategic approach to all the issues facing our environment.”
Proposing the motion in the Assembly chamber earlier Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan described an “ecological catastrophe”.
“We need to see decisive action.
“The public want to see decisive action,” he told MLAs.
“The issue of resources are quite rightly a key focus for the new Executive.
“What we’re asking for is that the Executive must ensure that a rescue package and plan for Lough Neagh is properly resourced, both in terms of a financial recovery package but also in terms of necessary personnel within departments to take agreed actions forward.”
Mr McGuigan also stated that it is not contained with his party’s motion, they also want to see the lough brought into public ownership as soon as possible adding: “We can no longer be expected to own the problems of the lough but not the lough itself.”