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The University of Southampton

Fragile deep-water coral thrown lifeline

Published: 13 February 2003

Southampton Oceanography Centre scientists who discovered an area of deep-water corals off the Scottish coast are welcoming proposals to protect the habitat from deep-water trawling. It is proposed that the Darwin Mounds, discovered during an environmental survey in 1998, become a Special Area of Conservation, giving Britain its first deep-sea marine reserve.

The site was first located by Southampton Oceanography Centre when sonar pictures showed a field of strange mounds and teardrop-shaped seabed features. The area was then investigated from aboard the Royal Research Ship Charles Darwin (hence the name of the site). The scientists used a deep-water video camera system to get the first glimpses of the coral communities on the Darwin Mounds.

Deep-water corals such as Lophelia pertusa live in the cold, dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Little is known about them and the habitats they provide for other deep-water animals. Recent reforms to the EU Common Fisheries Policy now make designating the Darwin Mounds a Special Area of Conservation a realistic prospect, allowing the UK Government to ban all deep-water trawling from a limited area around this coral habitat under new emergency powers.

Dr Bett, a marine biologist who first investigated the site, welcomed the proposal saying, "The existence of the Darwin Mounds has only been known of since 1998, and they were only studied in detail less than three years ago. Our research in 2000 has shown that the Darwin Mounds have already been impacted by the actions of deep-water trawlers. These small mounds and their coral growths are particularly vulnerable to the heavy trawling gear used in deep water.

"The designation of the Darwin Mounds marine protected area would serve as a marker to the rational management of the UK's deep-water resources - its oil and gas, its fish stocks, and its great biological diversity. Good environmental management will allow the sustainable use of deep-water fisheries. Part of that management task is the care of the ecosystems that support these fisheries - including the corals and other unique deep-sea habitats."

The UK leads the world in deep-water habitat mapping, a process begun in 1996 with funding from the oil industry and is on going today in the form of the DTI's Strategic Environmental Assessment process.

Dr Bett continued, "There is an urgent need to map the whole of the UK's marine estate. We are still guessing at the biological resources that may be present in the vast area of the UK's deep-water territory - an area as large as its land surface. This will, no doubt, reveal more coral and many other surprises. Every mission to the deep-sea floor yields something new."

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Notes for editors

  1. The Darwin Mounds were discovered during a deep-water environmental survey in 1998 carried out by Southampton Oceanography Centre (SOC) on behalf of AFEN (Atlantic Frontiers Environmental Network) a consortium of oil companies. Dr Colin Jacobs first located the site using SOC's deep-tow side scan sonar system, TOBI. The site was then investigated by Dr Brian Bett, using SOC's deep-water video camera system WASP.
  2. SOC scientists made further WASP observations of the corals and their associated fauna during 1999 and 2000 as part of the DTI's Strategic Environmental Assessment process. In 2000 the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded a major research cruise to the Darwin Mounds. Led by Professor Paul Tyler and Dr Doug Masson of SOC, onboard the RRS Discovery, this cruise revealed much more of the area's biology, ecology and geology. Critically, this work also indicated that the Darwin Mounds had already been impacted by the actions of deep-water trawlers. These small mounds and their coral growths are particularly vulnerable to the heavy trawling gear used in deep water.
  3. Southampton Oceanography Centre is a joint venture between the University of Southampton and the Natural Environment Research Council. It is one of the world's largest institutions devoted to research, teaching and technology development in ocean and earth science.
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