Rare wildlife in danger after fuel leaks into sea

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The Independent Online

One of Britain's most precious ocean wildlife sites has been hit by an eight-mile fuel slick. A clean-up operation is under way today at an environmentally sensitive area off the north Wales coast after waste fuel, thought to be from an industrial site, leaked into the sea.

Environmentalists fear the slick could damage rare and vulnerable plants and animals in the Menai Strait, which separates Anglesey from the mainland. The tide-swept reefs and rock surfaces of the strait are covered with creatures such as sea anemones and sponges.

An investigation has been set up but early indications suggest a ton of oil and diesel leaked into the sea through a pipeline linked to an industrial site.

Boat owners were urged to stay away from the area and people were warned not to go into the water.

Coastguards received the first sightings from yachts yesterday morning. The Environment Agency said a "thin film" of pollution stretched from Bangor to Caernarfon, an eight-mile distance and almost the entire length of the Menai Strait.

The sheltered waters of the strait provide excellent conditions for growth of marine algae.

Sheltered rocky areas act as homes for barnacles, marine snails and other molluscs, while there are mussel beds in the flatter areas.

The waters of the strait have bass, cod and conger eels, as well as lobsters.

Because the strait has such unusual tidal conditions coupled with very low wave heights because of its sheltered position, it presents a unique and diverse benthic ecology. This ecology was a big factor in the formation of the internationally renowned School of Ocean Sciences at Menai Bridge, part of the University of Bangor, and gave it its status as a proposed marine nature reserve.

Kate Smith, marine conservation officer for the Countryside Council for Wales, said: "The Menai Strait and Conwy Bay is recognised as one of Europe's most precious wildlife sites as it supports rare and vulnerable plants and animals.

"The water clarity (turbidity) is one of the most important factors. The water of the Menai Strait is perfect for animals like sponges that get their food from the water column, because it is full of suspended particles.

"These high levels of suspended organic matter along with the strong tidal currents experienced in the strait create specific conditions that favour the growth of extraordinary reef communities, which rival those found in tropical seas."

The Marine and Coastguard Agency is trying to trace the source of the leak and identify it, with the help of aircraft.

Colin Mulvana, the MCA's counter pollution and salvage officer, said: "We are more than 90 per cent sure the source of the pollution was from a pipe linked to an industrial estate. The local council is looking to close that off and we will begin the clear-up." He said most of the work would be done by hand with shovels and buckets, as the oil was washed ashore.

Barry Priddis, of the Holyhead Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre, advised people not to go into the water south of the strait.