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Race to save corals from trawlers
By Charles Clover in Bremen
(Filed: 26/06/2003)

Immediate measures to protect the north-east Atlantic's coral reefs from destruction by deep-water trawlers were agreed yesterday.

Cold-water corals, which grow at depths of between 130ft and 6,500ft, have recently been found to cover an area in the north-east Atlantic twice the length of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The corals, some of which are so deep that they were discovered only in the past five years, form a rich habitat for species such as false boarfish, monkfish, round-nosed grenadier, lumpfish, rabbitfish, morid cod and deep-water sharks.

For this reason, they are a favoured by fishermen who have taken to catching deep-water species because other stocks have disappeared.

As a result, up to half of the corals are already estimated to have been damaged by the nets of mainly French, Irish, Scottish and Norwegian fishermen, according to a German study for the European Union.

The corals, which are found at their shallowest in the cold waters off the Norwegian coast, are extremely slow growing and it is estimated that damage done in an afternoon by trawlers can take 100,000 years to grow back.

Ministers from 20 north-east Atlantic countries, including Britain, were meeting to review progress under the Ospar treaty, which governs sea pollution in the region.

They agreed to set up a network of "well-managed", "ecologically-coherent", protected areas throughout the region by 2010, with the first to be identified by 2006.

Ministers said that they were "particularly concerned" about vulnerable cold-water reefs, many of which were threatened with destruction.

They stated: "Bearing in mind the ecological importance of these reefs and the practical irreversibility of their damage, we shall take immediate measures to protect coral reefs from further damage due to use of active fishing gear."

Among the cold-water corals covered by the agreement are the Darwin Mounds, a large area of coral more than 100 miles off the west coast of Scotland discovered by the oil industry in 1998, which the Government has a responsibility to protect.

Elliot Morley, the environment minister, said that protecting the mounds was a "number one priority" and a draft regulation protecting the mounds under the EU habitats directive was now "at the printers".

In the meantime he had asked the European Commission to use its emergency powers to close the area to fishing vessels within "weeks rather than months".

The measures taken by Ospar were welcomed by coral experts but they warned that the undertaking would depend on taking active measures to prevent free access to the reef areas.

Dr Brian Bett, of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, said: "This statement will have no effect unless there is an immediate reform of the Common Fisheries Policy because this guarantees fishermen access to these areas.

"As I understand it the Government has been head to head with the Commission trying to protect the Darwin Mounds but it is the Commission's Fisheries Directorate-General that has been dragging its feet. Until it introduces new regulations the Government is hamstrung."
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