Campaign calls for founding of sea nature sites: Birds protection group says overfishing and pollution put wildlife in jeopardy

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The Independent Online
A CAMPAIGN to turn thousands of square miles of the seas around Britain into protected areas, safe from pollution and overfishing, is launched today by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The society says it is high time the Government extended the network of areas where wildlife has some legal protection offshore.

The seas around Britain are among the world's most heavily exploited. They are used as a vast refuse dump for pollution flowing down rivers, and have been overfished for more than a century. Each year, 70 per cent of the two- year-old cod are taken from the North Sea. At that age they have not reached maturity. Some 80 per cent of three-year-old cod are netted.

The society's main interest in launching the campaign is to protect the 7 million breeding seabirds which also fish the seas around Britain and nest on its shores. But it has a problem in putting over its message: several seabird species may actually be benefitting from the overfishing.

The trawlers' removal of so many of the larger fish at the top of the food chains, such as cod and haddock, appears to have allowed the populations of the smaller fish they eat, such as sprat and sandeel, to expand. In turn, it is thought birds such as razorbills and guillemots which eat them have expanded their numbers around much of the coast. The RSPB also believes the populations of some larger seabirds, such as gannets, may have risen due to the 'by catch' - the huge quantities of dead fish thrown out of fishing boats because they are too small or the wrong type.

But although some birds may have done well in the short term, the society argues that, in the long run, chronic overfishing combined with pollution jeopardises all of the wildlife in the North and Irish seas.

The waters around Fair Isle between Shetland and Orkney, the Isles of Scilly, the Farne Islands, Cardigan Bay, the Moray Firth and the Firth of Forth are good examples of the kind of sea area which deserve some measure of statutory protection.

Britain has only two national marine nature reserves, at Lundy Island off the Devon coast and Skomer off Wales, compared to dozens of reserves and more than 5,000 designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest on land.

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