Britain's Coasts: Troubled waters

Britain's coasts harbour treasures from corals to porpoises. That's why some marine areas need special protection
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The Independent Online

Lundy Island, a granite outpost off the coast of north Devon, is one of Britain's great green success stories. Measuring just three-and-a-half miles long, it marks the spot where the Bristol Channel meets the white horses of the Atlantic ocean. Its wild waters are teeming with marine life; jellyfish and sponges drift in and out of its underwater sea caves, basking sharks patrol its reefs and rare long-clawed lobsters call its sandbanks home. These lobsters are among the luckiest in the world - Lundy is Britain's only statutory marine nature reserve and every species here is given the chance to thrive.

Lundy's no-take zone, the first of its kind in the UK, was introduced in 2003 to try to reverse the problems caused by over-fishing. Four years on, the results are already being seen. "We have seen a threefold increase in the numbers of lobsters within the no-take zone since it was established," says Chris Davis, a marine conversation officer for English Nature.

Now a new report produced by the World Wildlife Fund together with the Marine Biology Association (MBA) has called for more biodiversity hot spots like Lundy to be established across the UK. A total of 120 locations rich in underwater activity but susceptible to such threats as over-fishing and pollution have been identified.

Kate Reeves, of WWF, says: "Our seas are becoming busier than ever before due to an increase in human activities threatening the marine environment, from fishing and shipping to dredging and wind farms."

Dr Keith Hiscock, one of the authors of the report, says the neglect of Britain's ocean treasures is a threat to more than just the survival of our marine species; the briny may be teeming with treasures we have yet to discover. To date, the UK has 56 Special Areas of Conservation which include marine habitat. Not enough, says Guy Baker of the MBA. "Less than 0.001 per cent of the UK seabed has full legal protection at a time when marine biodiversity is under increasing pressure from our activities. The WWF report uses objective scientific information to prioritise vital conservation efforts."

MULL

Standing proudly on an exposed clifftop on the Isle of Mull is MacCulloch's fossil tree, believed to be between 50 and 60 million years old. At at height of 12m, the tree, coated in lava during the Tertiary period and now partly exposed, towers above the powdery sand beaches of this Inner Hebridean island. If one were to climb it - impossible, of course - the view would be quite something. From the snow-capped peak of Ben More to Calgary in the northernmost tip, red deer and wild white goats wander across the open moors. The calls of buzzards and great eagles drift out to sea, where atlantic grey seals, bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, harbour porpoises and even orca are regularly spotted. On the adjacent islet of Staffa is Fingal's cave, a subterranean sea cave worth writing poetry about; its basaltic pillars and abundance of marine life have inspired Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Mendelssohn.

UNST

"The sun might blaze overhead, the air be without a breath... but still these great rollers would be running along all the external coast, thundering and thundering by day and night," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson from Muckle Flugga lighthouse on the wonderfully windy Isle of Unst, the northernmost part of Britain. Almost 150 years on, Unst is still a treasure island. Thin, well-drained soils overlie the eastern portion of the island, where serpentine and gabbroic rocks, once part of an ancient ocean seabed, give way to a vast expanse of ocean rich in life. Out on the misty rocks at Swinna Ness, visits from birds endemic to North America, Siberia and Central Asia are common. The island is flanked by 170m-tall cliffs, home to more than 100,000 breeding sea birds, including 25,000 pairs of puffins, rain geese and great skuas. Perhaps the most famous full-time resident is Albert, a black-browed albatross, who - so the story goes - has spent his days looking out to sea from a lonely ledge among the blanket bog of the peninsula since 1972.

GDOGGER BANK

Dogger Bank is a large sublittoral sandbank formed in the southern North Sea by glacial processes and submergence through sea-level rise. A piece of living history, it is part of the remains of a large landmass known as Doggerland, which existed during the last ice age and connected Britain to the European mainland. The epibenthos (animals living on the sea bottom) include crabs and fish, sponges, sea anemones and bryozoans. There are also a wealth of slow-moving animals such as snails, slugs, starfish and sea urchins. Naval vessels have sunk here during numerous sea battles - Jutland, Falklands and Dogger Hill - and are believed to have started the trend of placing fake shipwrecks in fish tanks. Some of its formation is due to a 1931 earthquake which hit 23km beneath the bank.

ASALCOMBE TO START POINT

Salcombe estuary stretches from the bucket-and-spade resort of Salcombe to the 19th-century lighthouse on the rocky peak of Start Point. Teeming with marine life, this is an estuary that lacks a river feeding it; what results is a mixture of rock and sediment seabed on the open coast. Salcombe's most treasured organism is marine eelgrass; a flower-bearing perennial species identifiable by its long, flowing, ribbon-like leaves. Beds of eelgrass are an important habitat for all sorts of creatures, including juvenile fish and seahorses - occasionally spotted off the coast of Salcombe.

JPLYMOUTH SOUND

The beautiful pink sea fan, a type of coral that grows at right angles to the prevailing current, is plentiful in the deep waters and reefs off Plymouth Sound. Until it was first discovered there in 2002, it had only one other known stronghold in British waters - the Hebridean islands. Often growing to the size of a dinner plate, it is one of the key warm water species that the Marine Biology Association is particularly keen to protect. WWF is also looking at bringing in measures to protect the biodiversity of nearby Lyme Bay, following recent concern about the damaging impact of scallop dredging in the area. Lundy Island, 10 miles offshore in the Bristol Channel, has been championed as the poster child of Plymouth Sound ever since it enforced a no-fishing zone around the island to protect its many varieties of lobster, crabs, corals and sponges. Evidence from the 2004/05 monitoring programme suggests that lobsters in the zone appeared to have increased in size and abundance.

GMENAI STRAIT

Nestled in the shadows of Snowdonia, the 22km Menai Strait is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. The sheltered coastline is dotted with ancient fortresses, shipwrecks and lighthouses; its centrepiece is an elegant iron suspension bridge designed by Robert Stephenson. Its ecology is unusually diverse and has led to the development of rare animal species. Some, like one of the many varieties of sponge, have joined forces with hydroids and dahlia anemone, and live together, intertwined like a soft rug. On the other side of the strait in Anglesey, twitchers come in droves to snatch glimpses of rare oystercatchers and curlews, while seals, porpoises and otters lounge on the banks. In the summer, the Menai Strait took the brunt of an 8km oil spill, devastating much of its marine life.

JSATURN REEF

Saturn reef is a biogenic, or living reef, formed by the tube-building worm Sabellaria spinulosa. Located in the southern North Sea, the reef straddles a sandbank, pushing dense clumps of rock well above seabed level, into the territory of a diverse assemblage of organisms - sadly, including fishing vessels. While the world's best-known reefs are the coral reefs of tropical waters, there are only a handful of other known areas of well-developed Sabellaria spinulosa reef in European waters.

RATHLIN ISLAND

Six miles off the coast of Ballycastle in Northern Ireland is Rathlin Island, a tiny boot-shaped limestone outpost teeming with bird life. Guillemots and kittiwakes, along with razorbills, fulmars and puffins, nest here in their thousands. Towering cliffs give way to deep, rocky waters dominated by sponges and kelp. Waters off the north coast are the territory of the basking shark, common seal and sea cucumber. But Rathlin Island's marine life is increasingly threatened by pollution and the route of shipping vessels.

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