We have become used to hearing the term anthropogenic climate change used to define the human activity which is leading to the progressively catastrophic changes in climate. There are other challenges quickly coming to the fore, with the realisation that many have already occurred, anthropogenic ecological and environmental collapse will define our future as much as climate change. Lough Neagh is showing every indication that, if it hasn’t already passed a tipping point, anthropogenic ecological collapse is imminent.
I grew up only a few hundred yards from Lough Neagh, regularly traversing Rea’s Wood from the area behind the Deerpark Hotel to the mouth of the Sixmilewater. Later, when an elected representative, I was a member of the Lough Neagh Partnership and I pay tribute to the work of the Partnership and especially Gerry Darby in trying to highlight the many issues facing the Lough and its environs.
It appears that the current situation has arisen due to a number of factors coalescing at the same time. Increased nutrient levels, particularly phosphates in the case of algal blooms, from human waste, farm effluent, soil run off and possibly disturbance of the nutrients captured in the Lough bed by sand dredging. The increased water temperature from climate change is directly related to human activity and the use of fossil fuels, a trend likely to continue for many years. The impact of zebra mussels in clarifying the water and allowing photosynthesis to occur at greater depth is also considered a factor in the current algal bloom.
But these issues and the associated algal bloom are only symptoms of a wider decline which has been known about and disregarded for many years. In the 1970’s the increasing levels of chlorophyll-a (the measure of algal growth) in Lough Neagh led to a phosphate reduction programme at waste water treatment plants feeding into the Lough. This led to a reduction in chlorophyll-a in the 1980’s but by the early 1990’s the chlorophyll level started to increase steadily. I’ve asked about the levels of chlorophyll-a and phosphorous in the Lough since 2001 but it is clear that the wide agricultural catchment area is a factor in nutrient levels increasing during the 1990’s.
The eel fishery in Lough Neagh has produced around 500 tons of eels per year and is world renown. However, in the early 1980’s the number of glass eels (juvenile eels) returning from spawning in the Sargasso Sea dropped by 90%. The fishery collective began at that stage to buy millions of glass eels annually to restock the Lough. In terms of economic sustainability this has ensured that a level of economic activity has continued, in terms of ecological sustainability it is an entirely unsustainable method of addressing the long-term survivability of the ecosystem. This becomes more challenging with the threat to the chironomidae (Lough Neagh fly) population upon which eels and the various fish species feed.
How much the arrival of zebra mussels has contributed to this requires detailed scientific assessment, as does the impact of pesticide use in the agri-food sector. In general, the number of insects in the UK has decreased by over 60% in the last 20 years. We hear lots about the loss of pollinators but the impact of insect loss in general has a devastating impact on the survival of many species. One thing is clear, the loss of chironomidae of the scale feared will cause an ecological collapse of fish species in the Lough Neagh system.
Over 40% of Northern Irelands land area drains into Lough Neagh, most of this land is agricultural sustaining a sector heavily dependent on grassland. Northern Ireland has 3% of the UK’s population, 6% of land area yet 17% of the UK’s total cattle herd. That means 17% of cattle waste is disposed of over a small area with even this supplemented by artificial fertilisers. In environmental terms much of this activity is unsustainable in its current format. While there are concerns about the demand for continued unlimited growth of the intensive agricultural sector the current moratorium due to concerns about inaccurate figures on pollutant levels represents an opportunity to engage with the sector about the significant changes in practice that must occur.
The challenges facing the lough are such that concepts of community ownership are incompatible with delivering the robust legislative framework to manage the changes needed. The same applies to private ownership or rights to extractive commercial activity. Only a public body, properly funded and with a legislative framework based on protecting the ecological and environmental foundations of the entire system can begin the generational process of undoing the damage caused.
Commercial fishing is no longer viable or sustainable and in the face of ecosystem collapse it must be ended. A buy out of existing licences for eels and coarse fish must be a priority action.
Sand extraction has been permitted without a robust environmental understanding of the impact on the entire ecosystem. Current proposals to extend extraction must be refused and a negotiated end to extraction within a short period of time must be implemented in line with the transfer of ownership of the lough bed to the public sector.
Changes in agricultural practices are vital in reducing nutrient leakage, whether this is the end of surface dressing with slurry on agricultural land or other more acceptable treatment becoming the norm with many farmers, a three-year programme of supporting farmers to purchase the equipment necessary before introducing a ban on the activity will assist in meeting environmental and climate change targets.
Across the United Kingdom under investment in waste water infrastructure has created an ongoing environmental crisis. Northern Ireland is fortunate that it does not have the financial asset stripping of the private sector in the rest of the UK to contend with, but lack of political responsibility locally to invest in infrastructure remains an issue. A robust independent assessment of NIW contribution to pollution levels and nutrient levels is required as a priority.
The number of overwintering birds at Lough Neagh have collapsed in the last few decades, wider ecological collapse puts the remaining populations at risk. There must be an end to recreational wildfowl shooting on Lough Neagh.
The current limitations on environmental protection caused by the departmental structures in Northern must be removed by the creation of a fully funded, legislatively powerful independent environmental protection agency outside the reach of potentially sectorally partisan government Ministers.
There is no doubt that various economic interests are already preparing campaigns to influence key politicians that whatever actions are taken should not interfere with their business. There can be no longer, in any field, an economic justification to continue taking actions leading to anthropogenic ecological and environmental collapse. Lough Neagh is no longer an economic opportunity based on asset stripping the resource.