European corals hit hard by fishing

Coral reefs older than the Pyramids are being smashed to bits by fishing boats trawling deep water off the UK coast

European countries are constantly pleading with developing nations to protect coral reefs in tropical countries. But it turns out that their own fishing boats are trashing equally important reefs in their own waters.

Jason Hall-Spencer of the University of Glasgow has found pieces of coral at least 4,500 years old in the nets of trawlers operating off Ireland and Scotland. “Very few people know about these deep-water reefs, but conservation areas are urgently needed to protect them,” he says.

As fish stocks collapse on Europe’s continental shelf, trawlers are heading beyond the edge of the shelf to catch exotic species such as roundnose grenadiers and Portuguese dogfish. The weights used to hold open the nets can be as heavy as a tonne and are turning coral to rubble, he says.

Especially fragile

Hall-Spencer has found pieces of coral up to a metre square in the nets of French trawlers scraping the seabed one kilometre down.

“These deep-water coral systems are especially fragile because, unlike shallow-water reefs, they are not adapted to cope with minor disturbance such as wave action,” he says. Oil prospectors too, he adds, are likely to rip the reefs to shreds. “We know very little about the ecology of these reefs, but they appear to be diverse,” says Hall-Spencer.

He found several species of coral, and evidence that many sponges, anemones, barnacles, worms, crustaceans and molluscs live and feed on the reef.

Amazing heritage

Areas in greatest need of protection include the Darwin Mounds – a range of sand mounds north-west of Scotland’s Cape Wrath – and the deep waters near the islet of Rockall, several hundred kilometres west of the Isle of Skye.

WWF is calling for the reefs throughout European Union waters to be protected from current industrial fishing practices under the EU’s Habitats Directive.

“This year, the list of marine sites to be protected under the Habitats Directive is supposed to be finalised and the Common Fisheries Policy is up for review. Both provide excellent opportunities to safeguard our amazing underwater heritage,” says Stephen Lutter, director of WWF’s North East Atlantic Programme.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B (vol 269, p 507)

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Fred Pearce New Scientist

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