13 species at risk in dying Irish seas
IRELAND'S marine life is being threatened by man's exploitation of the seas. A report to be published by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) shows that 13 out of the 16 species surveyed by its scientists are in decline in the seas surrounding Ireland and Britain. Species that may disappear include the leatherback turtle, the native oyster and the pink sea fan, an anemone-like creature formed from a colony of tiny polyps.
The study suggests that the food chain from shark to prawn is under threat. Basking sharks are being literally "run over" by ships in busy shipping lanes while deep-water mud habitats found in sea lochs are being targeted to put scampi on restaurant plates. The decline in cod has been well publicised, but skate have also been hit. Not a single example of the species was uncovered in the survey. However, the WWF is most worried that habitats which are the basis of marine life are being destroyed. It blames inadequate planning and poor management by the authorities. Overfishing, the dredging of the seabed for minerals and the increased traffic in shipping lanes are all taking a heavy toll beneath the surface. Oil and gas exploration, fish farming and the development of coastal areas are also adding to a man-made shockwave hitting the ecological system.
Noel Dempsey, the minister for the marine, is anxious to hold talks with his British counterparts on a new "ecosystem approach" to marine conservation in the Irish Sea. In Britain, a new marine bill is likely to create an agency with powers to crack down on illegal fishing. The WWF report highlights the adverse effects on the seas around Ireland and Britain and their marine life of coastal development and "aquaculture".
The majority of damage to habitats is caused by trawling, dredging and sand or gravel excavation from the bottom of the sea. Horse mussel beds create a habitat for about 100 other species, but they are being destroyed by scallop dredging. Surveys carried out in Strangford Loch in Northern Ireland show an area of these beds covering almost 2 square miles has been lost in the past decade.
The WWF says there are only a few locations around Britain where fan mussels remain undisturbed. Dredging for scallops is also damaging maerl beds, which are made up of calcified seaweed and provide an important nursery ground for species essential to commercial fishing. The pink sea fan coral, Eunicella verrucosa, is declining in the least likely place - England's only natural marine reserve, off the coast of the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, whose waters should be among the most protected in the area. There is also concern about the sunset cup coral, Leptopsammia pruvoti, which inhabits the same waters. Both corals look as if they belong on a tropical reef. The pink sea fan has the appearance of a delicate miniature tree while the sunset cup coral has vibrant colours.
There have been previous warnings by environmentalists that coral reefs could be wiped out by 2030 because of climate change. At the top of the food chain, even the basking shark - a marine beast that can grow to 40ft and weigh up to five tons - is at risk. The WWF says that the sharks' habit of gathering at certain points around the coast every year makes them vulnerable to collisions with ships.
The leatherback turtle is expected to become extinct within the next few decades if the decline of the adult population is not halted. Although normally associated with warmer-climate areas, the turtle was first spotted off the British Isles more than 250 years ago. Some experts believe the turtle, which has a leathery shell and can metabolically raise its own body temperature, may actually be an indigenous species from Britain and Ireland that migrated to tropical climes.
The number of adult nesting females has fallen by 95% around the world since 1980, making the species one of the most endangered. Recent sightings in this area have often been of dead turtles washed onto the beach. Sea grasses, flowering plants that live in coastal waters, are also gradually disappearing. A recent study found there are 110,000 square miles of sea grass beds worldwide, but their extent has decreased by 15% in the past decade. Thousands of plant species grow on them, and the beds provide food and shelter for many sea animals, including endangered turtles, as well as seahorses and commercially important species such as salmon, scallop and crab.
The WWF wants an ecosystem approach to marine management. Jan Brown, the WWF's senior marine policy officer, said: "This report shows that the plight of our seas has worsened. "To most people our marine environment is out of sight and out of mind, so its demise is hidden. However, it is not just wildlife that's suffering from poor management of our seas. Some coastal towns and villages that once thrived on the riches of the sea are now degenerated," she said.
One positive development was the announcement last year that Ireland was to become the first "hub" in a network of sub-sea cables and underwater observatories extending throughout European sea bed areas. The multi-million-euro network will track environmental changes in the Atlantic.