Havens of newly found marine life under threat
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
5th June 2004
Deep sea trawling poses risk to coral reef dwellers and prompts campaign for fishing ban to facilitate research
Snails and clams thought to be extinct 2m years ago have been discovered living on cold water coral reefs, which are being destroyed by fishermen using heavy trawl gear to drag the ocean bed.
A campaign to save the reefs and ban destructive trawling was launched yesterday by the United Nations environment director, Klaus Töpfer. He said it was vital they were researched before it was too late.
The existence of creatures such as giant squid and sea spiders thought to have disappeared millions of years ago has only become possible because of new technology used to explore the deep ocean.
The previously unknown colonies of animals are living on numerous cold coral reefs - themselves a completely new discovery - but scientists were shocked to discover that some were already so badly damaged they might never recover. The corals themselves have been carbon-dated as 8,000 years old.
Greenpeace is among campaigning groups hoping to get the UN to ban deep sea trawling completely while investigations take place into the locations of the corals and what lives on them.
Six main cold water corals have so far been identified, compared with 400 types of warm water corals but they sometimes extend over large areas. One found recently in the Norwegian Sea was 40 square miles. Corals occur on underwater sea mounts and often have associated colonies of fish and animals.
It is these fish that are targeted by the trawls with giant rollers and chains weighing as much as 10 tonnes which are dragged across the sea mounts to catch fish such as the orange roughy, which lives up to 150 years, and is sold in British supermarkets and fishmongers.
Campaigners say that because these take so long to reproduce, trawlers fish out one area and then move on to another sea mount.
Simon Reddy of Greenpeace said: "More people have been in space than into the dark depths of the oceans. Destroying seamounts is like blowing up Mars before we get a chance to explore it.
"Scientists say there could be as many as 5 million species in our oceans we have never discovered. We could be wiping out many unknown and prehistoric creatures that could help provide cures for diseases or teach us more about the origins of life on this planet, just so we can have more exotic fish on our plates."
A research report on the problem is due to be published on June 28, partly paid for by the UK government, which has already moved to protect the Darwin Mounds, a cold coral reef found less than five years ago off the north-west of Scotland.
The report says cold water reefs live in waters between 4C and 13C and can be in water as shallow as 40 metres (130ft) and as deep as 6,300 metres. Scientists have now detected them in waters off the coast of more than 40 countries although it was previously thought they were confined to the North Atlantic. In fact, they appear in the deep sea all over the world and are home to species found nowhere else.
Professor André Freiwald, of the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg, the author of the report, has been working with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge. He has just returned from another voyage discovering new reefs.
He said yesterday: "We are finding not only new species of coral and cold water corals in new locations but associated organisms, like snails and clams, that were believed by palaeontologists to have become extinct 2m years ago. That was a real surprise, and we expect many more of these surprises, in the future as we undertake more scientific missions."
Mr Töpfer, launching the campaign yesterday to coincide with World Environment Day today, said the main focus on coral up to now had been on the warm water variety. These tropical reefs were vital for fishing for many of the poorest people in the world, but it appeared cold water corals were also a vital part of the web of life on Earth and it showed the natural world was "still full of surprises".
Next week UN policy makers are meeting in New York to find new ways of regulating deep sea fishing.
Environment groups are urging a UN general assembly resolution be put forward in November, to impose an immediate moratorium on deep sea trawling while the new life forms, and the vulnerability of fish and other species to deep sea trawling, can be assessed.
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