British corals in decline despite marine park protection

Michael McCarthy@mjpmccarthy
Saturday 15 February 2003 01:00

Britain's two most spectacular corals are declining in the least likely place – England's only marine nature reserve.

Conservationists are increasingly concerned about the health of the pink sea fan coral and the sunset cup coral off the coast of Lundy, the rocky island in the Bristol Channel, whose waters are among the most protected in the world.

Both are worthy in appearance to grace a tropical reef. The pink sea fan,Eunicella verrucosa, looks like a delicate miniature tree, while the sunset cup coral,Leptopsammia pruvoti, is brilliant yellow in colour.

But Lundy's populations of sea fans are in poor condition with some dying, while the cup corals appear to be reproducing more slowly than they should.

Their problems have been picked up by a national project for monitoring the marine environment called Seasearch, which uses divers to check on the health of life on the seabed around British coasts. Conservationists have become increasingly concerned at what they have seen and this summer English Nature will mount a huge survey of the Lundy area seabed in response.

Lundy lies 12 miles north of the Devon coast in the Bristol Channel and besides being England's only marine nature reserve, it is also a designated European Special Area of Conservation. Its features include reefs, sea caves, sub-tidal sandbanks, grey seals and sponges. It is popular with divers and tourists and is owned by the National Trust and leased to the Landmark Trust.

In January, the Government set up the first "No Take Zone" around Lundy, which meant that no living natural resources, such as lobsters, crabs and fish, can be taken from that part of the sea. The zone was proposed by the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee and English Nature to alleviate pressure on fish and shellfish stocks and to restore wildlife.

But Chris Davis, English Nature's conservation officer who is responsible for Lundy's marine nature reserve, said he was still concerned about the coral decline. "It may be a natural fluctuation, but we will carry out a comprehensive survey of the area this summer," he said.

Chris Wood, Seasearch's national co-ordinator, said there were other populations of sea fans to the north of Lundy on the Welsh coast and to the south on the coast of Cornwall, which were healthy. "There is a distinct difference with the Lundy ones," he said. "They are dying and becoming covered in seaweed and other fouling organisms. It will almost certainly be to do with some change in the water quality locally, with some change in the quality of the nutrients the corals receive."

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