Stormont has heard a call to form a new management structure and plan 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 in June.
Three Sinn Fein MLAs brought a motion to the recently restored Stormont Assembly calling for action to protect the lough.
Agriculture and Environment Minister Andrew Muir and Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd were both present in the chamber for the debate as the motion called for a cross-departmental body to be set up to address the immediate issues facing the lough.
It also calls on the Executive to put in place a new management structure and plan for the management, protection and promotion of the lough.
Proposing the motion in the Assembly chamber Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan described an “ecological catastrophe”.
“The work of saving Lough Neagh and repairing the damage to its ecology and environment and that of its tributaries and surrounding land must be a top priority for the Executive in the time ahead,” he told MLAs.
“We need to see decisive action. The public want to see decisive action.
“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.”
Alliance MLA John Blair proposed what he termed a “minor amendment” to the motion to ensure the inclusion of non governmental organisations, such as NI Water, in plans to protect the lough.
He welcomed the restoration of the Assembly and Executive, but warned having local ministers will “not lead to a quick fix solution”.
“This valuable natural asset can be saved but it will take a very concentrated and co-ordinated effort by ourselves as elected representatives and various government departments and agencies over a long period,” he said.
“There is damage done over a long number of years to be put right.”
The Assembly debate continues.