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UK coral reefs at risk from bottom trawling

Sir David Attenborough’s recent three-part documentary on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef [1] was both a visual feast and a reminder that this huge and ancient ecosystem faces potentially irreversible and catastrophic damage from the effects of human activity. It was something of a surprise to learn that, not only are there deep-water coral reefs (also known as cold-water corals) off the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland [2], but also that they are at risk of destruction.

In 2010, the first Census of Marine Life was published [3], following its ten-year investigation of the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life – including the world’s numerous coral reefs – and it makes disturbing reading.

“It doesn’t matter what ocean you go to, these habitats are being trashed by international fishing fleets”, said Jason Hall-Spencer, one of the project’s researchers, adding that, in his view, a network of protected areas is urgently needed, where bottom trawling is banned. [4]

Bottom trawling has taken place for over a century in the seas around the UK [5] and, although the results of overfishing have been well documented, the damage to slow growing, deep water corals and the diverse communities of deep sea organisms which depend on them, has only recently been recognised. The United Nations General Assembly urged member states to implement a ban on bottom trawling, but the proposal was eventually blocked. [6]

Prompted by this lack of action by the authorities, environmental activist organisations like Greenpeace have campaigned for an end to environmentally destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling [7] but without immediate international action, it seems increasingly likely that these fragile and important ecosystems will be gone within just a few decades and, as Sir David Attenborough says at the end of his documentary, “That would be a global catastrophe”.

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  • [1] Great Barrier Reef: David Attenborough ignores politics and appeals to the heart (The Guardian)
  • [2] Deep-water coral (Wikipedia)
  • [3] First Census of Marine Life 2010: Highlights of a Decade of Discovery (CoML)
  • [4] Deep-sea trawling is destroying coral reefs and pristine marine habitats (The Guardian)
  • [5] Bottom trawling – environmental damage (Wikipedia)
  • [6] UN rejects bottom trawling ban (CBC News)
  • [7] Bottom trawling (Greenpeace UK)
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