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Wildlife Trust urges ban on dredging to save rare coral reef of Lyme Bay

A total ban on scallop dredging in Lyme Bay is the only way to protect some of Britain's rarest species of coral, the Wildlife Trust will say today.

The Lyme Bay reef in Devon is one of the country's most popular dive spots but its fragile ecosystem is being destroyed by heavy scallop dredging.

Today is the start of the scalloping season and, once again, the reef is in peril. Protected species such as the pink sea fan coral and the sunset cup coral are broken and killed by the heavy iron-toothed dredging rigs that are dragged along the seabed.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is holding a consultation to decide on the future of the Lyme Bay reef, which will conclude next month. Now the Devon Wildlife Trust has published a report that it has been compiling for the past 16 years urging Defra to impose an outright ban on dredging in the reef.

The devastating effect of dredging on marine ecosystem is exposed in the report, which calls for urgent action to protect the unique habitat. Paul Gompertz, director of Devon Wildlife Trust, said: "The reefs are undersea equivalent of the rainforests and the report demonstrates that closure of Lyme Bay reefs to dredging is essential if we are to stop their destruction."

After chefs such as Rick Stein began to rave about the molluscs, demand for the shellfish has risen steeply. Stein has even chosen them as the signature dish for his seafood restaurant in Padstow.

According to local fishermen, the number of dredgers has increased dramatically in the past two years, as scallops became more fashionable. One Lyme Bay fisherman said that, in 2005, the number of dredging boats in the bay went from three to 23. The results have been devastating.

The 60 sq metres of reef make up less than 10 per cent of Lyme Bay, so there would still be areas available to dredge for scallops.

Many livelihoods depend on the well-being of the reef. Diving, potting and sea angling all rely on a healthy reef habitat, so aside from the environmental devastation caused by dredging, there are strong economic reasons for keeping them out.

David Sales, a lobster potter, who has been fishing Lyme Bay for 28 years, said: "I appreciate the scallop dredgers are entitled to make a living but the long-term future has to be assured for the area.

"It's had a horrendous effect on the reef: If you imagine towing something 12 metres wide, with 220 six-inch steel spikes along the seabed, you're going to do serious damage to something down there. You don't really need to be an expert to work that out".