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Plan for UK marine nature reserves
By Severin Carrell

The Independent

22nd June 2003

Some of the wildest stretches of ocean around Britain are to become legally protected marine nature reserves under plans being considered by European environment ministers this week.

The proposals would ban fishing and oil drilling to protect rare and highly sensitive coral beds, fish spawning grounds and sea bird breeding colonies off western Scotland, the Northumberland coast and eastern England.

Top of the list of "marine protected areas" being compiled by British conservationists is the Darwin Mounds, a fragile, 40-square-mile area of coral beds 120 miles off Scotland which has been dev-astated by deep-sea trawlers fishing for orange roughy and round-nosed grenadier.

Ministers are also expected to include famous coastal bird and grey seal breeding colonies and fish spawning grounds around the Farne Islands and Holy Island as well as St Kilda, the spectacular home to the world's largest colony of gannets.

Britain's most westerly inhabited island, St Kilda, lies 41 miles off the Hebrides and is already a World Heritage Site because of its bird colonies, including large numbers of fulmars and puffins, and its history of human settlement.

Wildlife-rich deep sea trenches and underwater mounds around Rockall are also expected to be chosen, as part of international attempts to protect dozens of endangered species such as blue whales and basking sharks, cod and Atlantic salmon, through to common oysters and leatherback turtles.

Elliot Morley, recently promoted to environment minister, told The Independent on Sunday that the Government is "anxious to press ahead" with the proposals. "They're very significant," he said. "For the first time, we're agreeing on protected areas on the high seas as well as sites in our coastal waters. We're committed to this. We recognise there are a number of very sensitive sites, with very strong conservation and fisheries arguments for designating them."

The network of reserves - which would stretch north from southern Spain to the Arctic and hundreds of miles westwards into the mid-Atlantic - will be discussed by ministers at their five-yearly meeting to update the OSPAR marine pollution convention in Bremen, Germany, this week. The meeting will be presented with a list of 30 bird, fish, cetacean and shellfish species and 10 marine habitats designated as "threatened" or "at risk" - nearly all of which are found in oceans around the British Isles.

The meeting is expected to agree to a ground-breaking deal with the European Commission to co-operate closely on a joint fisheries and marine conservation programme but the entire project could be scuppered because of furious objections by Norway.

The Norwegians, who jealously guard their fishing and whaling interests, claim that protecting deep-sea areas will harm their fishing industry. This has led to angry accusations of "intransigence" by British sources. If Norway refuses to agree to establish protected areas in the deep mid-Atlantic or Arctic Circle, other countries will find it politically impossible to ban their own fishing fleets from the same areas. "It's a very real threat," said one source. "Norway does risk undermining the whole agreement."

The full UK list of candidate marine nature reserves will be published later this year by the Joint Nature Conservancy Council, the Government's expert conservation advisory body.

To the annoyance of environment groups, the marine protected areas policy will not come into full force until 2010 - far too late, they argue, to save threatened species from harm or extinction. However, Mr Morley is seeking emergency powers to protect the Darwin Mounds and he hopes to have legal approval from the European Commission to ban all fishing in the area later this year. He said the proposal - revealed by The Independent on Sunday earlier this year - had proven to be far more legally complex than first thought.

However, the WWF UK and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds claim that the OSPAR proposals will take too long to implement. "We can't wait until 2010," said Ali Champion, the marine policy officer for WWF UK. "We still have a huge way to go in securing real protection for these species. We need action now."