Britain's marine species need legal protection, WWF warns

Britain's most cherished underwater habitats, and the creatures that thrive in them, face imminent destruction if the Government does not provide them with legal protection.

Species including seahorses, basking sharks, turtles and corals are at risk from human-led activities such as dredging for sand and gravel, unregulated fishing and the use of jet-skis and motor boats, a leading conservation organisation warns today.

Some of the most ecologically sensitive locations in the country, such as Lyme Bay, Dogger Bank and the coral reefs off the Scottish coast, could be lost for ever, the WWF believes.

The Government, which promised before the 2005 election to introduce a marine bill guaranteeing certain underwater zones protection from harmful practices, has come no closer to passing the law than Defra's publication of a White Paper in March.

In a report titled Can We Have the Bill Please?, WWF-UK is demanding that the bill should go ugently before MPs, claiming that unregulated activities including anchoring, unlicensed dredging, commercial fishing and bottom trawling are destroying fragile underwater habitats.

Jan Brown, WWF's senior marine policy officer, said: "Our seas have been in decline for some time and it is imperative that the Government addresses the urgency of the situation.

"The facts are inescapable – many nationally important species and habitats are at risk. It is imperative that we have overarching marine legislation to prevent further deterioration and decline."

A Defra spokeswoman said: "We are committed to a marine bill in this parliament. The intention is to publish a bill in the next parliamentary session, which will probably be early 2008."

Areas at risk

* Stanton Banks

Earmarked as one of eight special areas of conservation under the Marine Bill white paper, this is an area of rock peaks in the Malin Sea, on the continental shelf west of Scotland. Species include sea urchins, barnacles, brittlestars and coralline red algae.

Twenty-one species of cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – have been recorded.

* Dogger Bank

Also a possible marine conservation area (MCA), this submerged North Sea sandbank 70 miles off the Yorkshire coast supports a magnificently diverse community of worms – and is an important spawning ground for fish and breeding ground for dolphins.

* Lyme Bay

Not a candidate for MCA status but could gain special protection for its reefs, which are home to at least 300 species. These include vast fields of pink sea fan coral and starfish, which marine experts say have been damaged by heavy dredging for scallops.