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Monday, 08 August 2016 12:31

Scientists find good biodiversity at risk in North Sea's British waters

Oceana research has revealed a surprisingly high biodiversity in the British waters of the North Sea, but it is at risk if current fishery, pollution and development practices continue.

british oceana survey7 copyThe marine conservation group's first ever at-sea surveys in the UK this summer have already recorded hundreds of species, many of which found in areas threatened by human activity.

Oceana has just completed the UK leg of its eight-week North Sea expedition, and the preliminary results emphasise the wealth of marine biodiversity present in this region. To date, the expedition has covered over 400 nautical miles – mostly in British waters – and has already identified and documented over 350 species, by means of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), professional SCUBA divers, and invertebrate samples taken from the seafloor.

"The UK waters of the North Sea are home to an impressive variety of marine species and habitats, which are subject to a wide array of serious and ongoing threats, including overfishing, pollution, and intensive offshore development," explains Lasse Gustavsson, Executive Director of Oceana in Europe.

"Oceana's surveys highlight the clear need for the UK to implement stronger protection of its important marine areas. Brexit creates an opportunity for the government to improve the protection of British waters by designating new areas for protection, and ensuring that all marine protected areas are well-managed."

british oceana survey9 copyThe most documented species so far are those commonly found in soft-bottom sea beds, some of which carry a high commercial and ecological value. The majority of fish have been flatfish, especially dab, scaldfish, plaice, flounder, sole and bottom dwellers such as weevers, dragonets, sandeels and rays.

A remarkable variety of crustaceans have also been documented, including Norwegian and European lobster and edible crab, as well as gardens of abundant soft corals, such as dead man's fingers, and dense aggregations of sea pens on soft bottoms down to 200 m depth.

Since its launch recently in the Netherlands, Oceana's North Sea Expedition has conducted surveys in more than 70 sites within six large areas, some of which were previously little explored. Survey areas were selected in consultation with local authorities, scientists, and NGOs in each of the four countries being surveyed, including the Marine Conservation Society in the UK.

british oceana survey4 copyOceana's surveys in UK waters have covered biologically important inshore areas to the north of the Humber estuary and off the Norfolk coast, and offshore areas (Brown Bank, Cleaver Bank, Devil's Hole, and a transboundary area in the centre of the North Sea that spans British, Norwegian, Danish, and Dutch waters).

Some of these areas are important fishing grounds for the UK and other European countries. In addition to surveying marine species and habitats, Oceana has documented scars on the seabed from bottom trawling, which threatens the survival of important sessile animals such as soft corals and annelids in this sensitive environment.

By gathering new evidence to document the biological importance of sites, this research will form the basis of new proposals to establish or enlarge marine protected areas (MPAs) and strengthen their management. Oceana's ultimate aim is to promote the establishment of a coherent network of North Sea MPAs that will both preserve biodiversity and help to restore depleted fish stocks.

The Oceana research team is continuing the North Sea expedition onboard the MV Neptune, with surveys in Norwegian, Danish, and Dutch waters. The project has been generously funded by the Nationale Postcode Loterij.

EUROPEAN PROPOSALS
The EU has started negotiations that will decide the future of 28% of all EU fish catches including iconic species such as hake, cod, and Norway lobster. Oceana has called for ambition in the recovery of North Sea stocks becasue nearly half are currently overfished.

british oceana survey12Early this month, the European Commission published a multiannual management plan proposal for the North Sea theoretically aimed at managing stocks at sustainable levels for cod, plaice, hake, Norway lobster and other commercial species that live close to the sea floor of the North Sea.

Oceana welcomed the plan saying such measures are well overdue and desperately needed, however the international marine conservation organisation fears the plan lacks ambition and leaves the doors open to continued overfishing of the most important North Sea fish stocks since it still permits fishing above sustainable levels.

The North Sea hosts several of Europe's most important fishing grounds with annual catches of 1.3 million tonnes, which equates to 28% of all catches within the EU.

"Oceana considers this proposal and the negotiation that will follow as one of the most crucial milestones in the future of EU fish stocks since the new European Common Fisheries Policy entered into force." Explains Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Reseach at Oceana in Europe.

"Under this new commitment of ending overfishing by 2020 and securing both stable and sustainable food source from our oceans, EU fish stocks simply cannot be recovered and maintained to its full potential with half-hearthed measures and this latest proposal could do more to achieve this."

LINKS

Oceana North Sea Expedition 2016
Oceana Europe
EC multiannual management plan