Scottish cold-water coral reefs to be first protected UK marine habitat

Oct 24, 2001 02:00 AM

A surprise announcement by Margaret Beckett, the environment minister, is likely to make cold-water coral reefs off the north of Scotland the first protected marine habitat in the UK. Mrs Beckett said the government was considering potential special areas of offshore conservation under the European habitats directive.
When that report is completed early next year, she said the Darwin Mounds -- a collection of hundreds of sand and cold-water coral mounds in the north-east corner of the Rockall Trough -- would almost certainly be the first designated protected area. The mounds are about 120 miles north-west of Cape Wrath and within the UK's 200 nautical miles of offshore waters.

Mrs Beckett, secretary of the department of environment, food and rural affairs, said in her message to the oceans-recovery meeting organised by the UK section of the WWF: "The government is committed to improving habitat conservation and, within Europe, the UK is in the lead in drawing up our criteria for selecting sites for protecting habitats and species beyond our immediate territorial waters.
"We will be implementing the European Habitats Directive out to 200 nautical miles and the legislation for that should be in place by 2002." The mounds of cold-water coral, about 1,000 mm down, covering about 100 sq km and sometimes described as the underwater equivalent of a rainforest, are home to large numbers of species including starfish, sea urchins, sea stars, crabs and deep-sea fish. They were discovered during an oil survey in 1998 and named after the research vessel which found them, itself named after the biologist, Charles Darwin.

Robert Napier, the CEO of WWF UK, said after Mrs Beckett's announcement: "In ministerial-speak, that sounds as if the Darwin Mounds will be the first special area of conservation in the UK." Later, he added: "It was unequivocal. We've got it on the record. But there is still Brussels to deal with."
Brussels agreement is needed under the European Union's common fisheries policy, but the UK government can take responsibility for protecting sites against the possible effects of gas, oil or other production. WWF claims that ever since the mounds were discovered in 1998, they have suffered damage from fishing gear and that offshore mineral mining is a potential threat.
The meeting was held to give more than a dozen organisations the chance to express support for the "Edinburgh Declaration for Oceans Recovery". A long declaration -- deploring declining fish stocks, massive pollution and chronic mismanagement by almost everyone -- was summarised as: "We need an integrated oceans act."

That, it was claimed, was the only way of ending the "conflicting" domestic and European policies that are devastating the ocean environment. Mr Napier told the gathering: " What we have now are hundreds of pieces of legislation all over the place, with little cohesion and often in conflict.
"The time has come for all of us to demand, and take, an integrated approach. "Our agenda is for a healthy marine environment, both in the interests of nature and in the interests of people." Hamish Morrison, the CEO of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, said his members supported ORCA -- the oceans recovery campaign -- but pointed out that fishermen were the only species being periodically culled.

Source: The Scotsman Online
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