Environmentalists hold ‘wake’ after algal blooms

Dozens of protesters are taking part in a ‘wake’ for Britain’s largest freshwater lake, Lough Neagh, to highlight their fears that the lake is dying.

Campaigners say pollution is killing the lake, with wildlife and birds suffering from blue-green algae over the summer.

Lough Neagh supplies half of Belfast’s drinking water and 40% of Northern Ireland’s total.

Some fishing groups have said pollution puts livelihoods at risk.

Lough Neagh is also home to the largest commercial wild eel fishery in Europe.

On Sunday, protesters – many dressed in black – accompanied a coffin along the lakeshore to represent their concerns about the lake’s death.

Mary O'Hagan

Mary O’Hagan says her mental and physical health has suffered since she stopped swimming in Lough Neagh

Mary O’Hagan, founder of a swimming group that regularly uses the lake, said her health suffered because he couldn’t swim there.

“I had this amazing community around me,” she said.

“Everybody used that same coping mechanism of getting into the cold water and that was just destroyed by this.

“My pain is much worse, my medications have had to be increased and my mental health has suffered.”

Gary Gregg

“This is the biggest Lough in Ireland and Britain and it’s dying,” says fisherman Gary Gregg.

Fisherman Gary Gregg said a plan to deal with the issue needs to be drawn up before it’s too late.

“There has to be a road map and it has to be followed because we’re not going to get anywhere, especially with Stormont not sitting,” he said.

“It’s only going to get worse and worse and we can’t let that happen.

“This is the biggest lake in Ireland and the UK and it’s dying.”

Earlier, speaking on the The BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, former agriculture and environment minister Edwin Poots said the algae was a “very significant issue”.

“Lough Neagh is such an important body of water, it provides 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water.

“We have scientists and we need those scientists to report back to us on what we can do.”

Mr Poots said the algae was largely caused by the invasive species of zebra mussels present in the lake.

“Once they get in, you can’t get rid of them… this may be a recurring problem, I’m not sure if there’s a scientific solution to it.”

‘Smell from your faucet’

Patsy McGlone, a Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) assembly member, said there had been “an erosion of confidence in many cases about the water supply and concerns about it; smells, tastes and that”.

Mr McGlone called on NI Water to “reassure the public about the quality of the water being consumed”.

In a statement released on Friday, NI Water said “increased levels of algae can cause an unusual taste and smell to your tap water but does not pose a health risk”.

Blue green algae

Blue-green algae have been found in waters in and around Northern Ireland during the summer

The statement also noted: “Drinking water supplied by the water treatment works which use Lough Neagh as their raw water sources, is designed with the potential for algae to be present and robust treatment processes are in place to manage this effectively.”

What went wrong?

The blue green algae bloom during the summer caused havoc, not only in Lough Neagh but right up to the northern coast of Northern Ireland.

A sign that warns swimmers against entering Lough Neagh because "potentially toxic" blue green algae

Swimmers at Ballyronan on the edge of Lough Neagh were warned against entering the water in June

Water from Lough Neagh flows along the Upper Bann and into the Atlantic Ocean at Barmouth between Portstewart and Castlerock in County Londonderry.

This brought the algae to the coast, where it could not survive but caused a bathing ban on several beaches at the height of summer.

There were also bathing bans in areas around the lake.

Some merchants blamed the effect of these bans on putting them out of business.

Anglers were advised to “catch and release” fish that were within Lough Neagh due to the risk the seaweed poses.

The bloom was the result of settled weather, invasive species and water pollution mostly from agriculture.

Excess manure runs off fields into the water, carrying growth-stimulating nitrogen and phosphorus into the lake.

Lough Neagh

Lough Neagh is home to significant native species such as eel, trout and pollack

Almost two decades ago the zebra mussel invaded the lake.

It filters water, making it clearer and allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper into the depths.

That, combined with the excess nutrients from fertilizer – eutrophication – caused the algae to “bloom” or grow rapidly.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) previously said algae blooms can occur when there is abundant sunlight, still or slow-flowing water and sufficient levels of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

Daera told BBC News NI that it had a range of programs to improve water quality and was working with partners and stakeholders.

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