Northern Ireland's bathing waters continued to perform well in 2023 despite it being the wettest July in Northern Ireland since records began.
Twenty-five of the 26 identified bathing waters in Northern Ireland have met the required standards for water quality when measured against the standards for faecal indicator organisms.
Eighteen bathing waters are classified as 'Excellent', a prerequisite for the coveted Blue Flag Award and the highest water quality standard, six have met the 'Good' standard, and one the 'Sufficient' standard. Ballyholme bathing water, unfortunately, has failed to meet the minimum standards for a second year in a row.
This year the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), which manages the bathing water programme, also undertook sampling at a number of 'Candidate' bathing waters which had been recommended as bathing sites by the Bathing Water Review conducted by the Department in 2022/2023. This included Northern Ireland's first Inland Bathing Water at Rea's Wood, Antrim.
The seven 'Candidate' bathing waters were also measured against the standards for faecal indicator organisms with one classified as 'Excellent', two as 'Good' and the remaining four failing to meet the minimum standards.
A DAERA spokesperson said: "Even though the weather this summer was more unsettled than previous years, it is very encouraging to see so many of Northern Ireland's bathing waters maintaining high standards for water quality. Although there is some reduction in water quality, this is to be expected given the weather conditions, with the wettest July on record.
"The results from the new candidate sites are, however, disappointing. Sample numbers are low at the new sites, with only one season's data, which has the potential to skew results. However, it also shows the vulnerability of all our waters to pollution during heavy rainfall events."
The spokesperson added: "Unfortunately, this season was also dominated by the blue-green algae events in Lough Neagh, which impacted the new Rea's Wood site in Antrim and some of our north coast bathing waters. This is the first time that we have seen blue-green algae blooms affecting the quality of some bathing waters and we know this created significant impacts and disappointment for those who love to use our waters.
"Our bathing waters are a huge asset to Northern Ireland, valued by locals and visitors alike. We take our responsibilities for water quality seriously. While there are no quick fixes to the situation that occurred this summer on Lough Neagh, we are working closely with scientific and other experts on proposals that can deliver improvement for the future. In the meantime, we will not hesitate to take action where there is evidence that the laws in place to protect our bathing waters are not being adhered to."
The 2023 bathing season was supported by a pilot bathing water quality prediction app, 'Swim NI', which provided daily forecasts of bathing water quality at six beaches, enabling bathers to make an informed choice.
The project is a collaboration between scientists at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and communications partner Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, and is a continuation of work developed under the EU Interreg VA SWIM project.
This app worked well for four of the beaches, but the modelling supporting the forecasts needs further development for two of the beaches and will be refined for next year. DAERA will support ongoing efforts to provide wider prediction tools for bathing water quality."
The 2023 results for the 26 Identified Bathing Waters are:
Murlough (Co Down)
Portballintrae Salmon Rock
Portrush Curran (East Strand)
Portrush Mill (West Strand)
The 2023 results for the 7 Candidate Bathing Waters are: