A habitat as diverse as that in the Amazon rainforest will face ecological disaster unless the Government takes urgent action to restrict access to prime fishing grounds in the Irish Sea, marine conservationists have warned.
They say ocean floor habitats are at high risk of deterioration because of “unsustainable” Dublin Bay prawn trawler fishing which is indiscriminately depleting other types of marine life.
Stocks of fish including cod, whiting and sole have fallen because these fish have been caught in prawn nets – with scientists advising there should be no dedicated fisheries for those fish next year.
A total of 19 Marine Conservation Zones were proposed for the Irish Sea, but only two, Fylde and Cumbria Coast, have been approved.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will decide shortly whether two other areas off Cumbria – Allonby Bay and West of Walney – should also be protected.
But conservationists want to see further zones created in prime Dublin Bay prawn fishing grounds including South Rigg and Slieve na Griddle off Northern Ireland, and the Mud Hole off Cumbria. They are home to a host of unusual creatures including the ocean quahog, sea pens and sea potatoes, which live on the seabed with the prawns – known to scientists as “nethrops”.
Dr Emily Baxter, a Cumbria-based marine conservation officer for the North West Wildlife Trusts, said: “We are extremely concerned that mud sites in the Irish Sea are not being considered for protection. These vulnerable habitats are already damaged from activities such as bottom trawling and they are at high risk of further damage and deterioration. The nethrops stocks are being fished beyond sustainable levels and other stocks are in a severe state of depletion. Decision makers need to take action.”
More than 120 conservation zones were proposed in UK waters in 2013. But fewer than 30 zones have been designated, with the Defra now looking at another 23.
Research suggests that deep-sea mud supports a wealth of biological diversity. It is thought that, of the tens of millions of animal species alive on the planet, more than three-quarters live on the sea floor. Dick James from the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation said prawns are being fished sustainably in the Irish Sea and prawn fishermen have taken steps to minimise the amount of cod and other fish caught in their nets.
He said: “We don’t accept that the Irish Sea is being overfished. We are not against Marine Conservation Zones. It’s about where you put them and what measures you put on them. We have offered alternatives.”
A Defra spokeswoman said: “A quarter of English inshore waters are within marine protected areas including the 27 Marine Conservation Zones we designated in 2013, two of which are in the Irish Sea.” Defra is “doing more than ever” to protect the marine environment and was considering further sites, she said.
Rare creatures off the UK coast
Ocean quahog (Arctica islandica): An edible clam that can live for up to 500 years. The oldest known quahog, found off Iceland, was 507 years old and was nicknamed Ming by scientists.
Sea potato (Echinocardium cordatum): A sea urchin, pictured below, that lives buried in the sandy sea floor.
Sea pen (Pennatulacea): Soft coral named for its feather-like fronds, which look like antique quill pens.
Brittle star (Amphiura filiformis): A relative of the starfish. They crawl the sea floor using their flexible arms.
Horseshoe worm (Phoronis sp.): A small group of worm-like invertebrates that live in tubes which become encrusted with shells.
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