Beneath Britian’s waves
For centuries, people in the British Isles have depended on the sea. The waters surrounding the country have protected and fed its people for generations.
But there is more to these seas than maritime history and food. Hidden beneath the waves is a spectacular — and unexpectedly rich — marine environment.
WWF regards the north-east Atlantic as one of the 200 most biologically important regions on the planet, and the British Isles are situated right in the middle. Here, the sea is teeming with life, including the kind of marine species one usually associates with more exotic waters: 24 species of whale and dolphin, cold water corals, kelp forests, hundreds of varieties of fish and almost half Europe’s breeding seabirds.
“There are some amazing underwater habitats off the British Isles supporting an incredible variety of marine life,” says Sally Bailey, a marine programme officer with WWF-UK.
“But it’s out of sight and out of mind. People often don’t realize just how important our seas are.”
The UK’s marine wildlife is increasingly under threat from a wide range of activities, including poorly-managed fishing, oil and gas mining, gravel extraction and shipping. To make matters worse, some activities on land are polluting the sea with hazardous chemicals and fertilisers.
Bycatch — the accidental capture of ‘non-target species’ during fishing — is indiscriminately killing large numbers of dolphins, porpoises, sharks and even seabirds each year. Fishing can also leave its mark on the wider marine environment. Fragile underwater habitats and communities can be devastated by trawling activity, with some areas being trawled three or four times a year.
These activities are having serious consequences for both wildlife and people. Poor fishing practices alone have pushed the UK’s commercial fish stocks towards extinction, threatening species such as cod and the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.
To help scientists identify the most important biological sites around the British coast, WWF recently commissioned a report on marine ‘hotspots’. On land, the idea of hotspots has guided conservation efforts for several years. But, for the first time, WWF has tested this approach in the marine environment, using sites around the UK. Scoring sites on criteria such as species richness and nationally important marine features, the report identified Salcombe and Plymouth Sound in south Devon, and the Menai Strait in north Wales as three of the most biologically important areas off the UK coast.
“Plymouth Sound is not spectacular on the surface, but beneath the waves it is an aesthetic tour de force,” Bailey says.
Submerged river gorges with steep rock slopes provide cracks, caves and overhangs that are perfect for sponges, sea firs, feather stars, jewel anemones and sea squirts. In turn, these creatures create an ecosystem that supports crustaceans and a host of fish, including small sharks. The only known inshore population of a nationally rare species of fan mussel is found in Plymouth Sound. And in the summer, basking sharks are attracted to its waters; these plankton-feeding giants can grow up to 10 metres long, the length of a bus.
Getting the protection they deserve
To ensure that underwater hotspots and species such as basking sharks get the protection they deserve, WWF is campaigning for the UK government to introduce a new Marine Act.
Currently, just nine marine species and eight habitats out of many thousands enjoy legal protection in the country.
“A modern bill, taking into account all the demands on and threats to the marine environment, can protect our seas and ensure a sustainable future for the industries that depend on them,” says Jan Brown, WWF-UK’s Marine Act campaign leader.
“Once the right legislation is in place, WWF and other stakeholders can work towards creating a network of marine protected areas that cover and safeguard the most important areas in our seas.”
And it’s not just wildlife that will benefit from a protected areas network. Research has shown that marine conservation has the potential to reward fishermen. For example, WWF supports and monitors a fishing ‘no-take zone’ off the east coast of Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel. After just two years of protection, the number and size of commercially valuable lobsters in the area has increased dramatically.
From the net to the plate, WWF works closely with the fishing industry to support sustainable fishing. In 1997, WWF and Unilever created the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which encourages sustainable fishing globally and allows consumers to choose sustainable products that feature the MSC’s blue tick logo.
To date, the MSC has certified 21 well-managed and sustainable fisheries around the world. Among those certified are the Hastings mackerel, herring and Dover sole fisheries, which were awarded the MSC certificate in October 2005.
Not only is the scheme providing a future for the Hastings fishermen, but with the MSC seal of approval, they can cater for a growing UK market in eco-friendly fish.
“In the future, the MSC certificate should give us a better return on our catches,” says Graham Coglan, Hastings fisherman and skipper of the Saint Richard.
Graham catches Dover sole through set-netting — a low impact technique where nets are left on the seabed for 24 hours. His net has a 10cm mesh which lets young fish through and reduces bycatch. The fish are then sold to MSC-accredited Hastings Fish Market Enterprises, and are snapped up by some of the top restaurants in London.
Graham is proud that his fishing has been certified: “Dover sole is one of Britain’s most expensive fish and Hastings is the only place providing it in an eco-friendly way.”
From the hidden underwater beauty of Plymouth Sound and idyllic Lundy Island to the whale-watching waters off the west coast of Scotland, the British Isles contain a staggering array of marine wonders.
As an island nation with a proud maritime heritage, Britian needs to protect its seas and the wealth of wildlife they support.
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