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Wednesday, 22 August, 2001, 23:48 GMT 00:48 UK
UK estuaries 'risk becoming deserts'
Fish farm in loch Scottish Quality Salmon
A salmon farm in Loch Duich, western Scotland (Image courtesy of Scottish Quality Salmon)
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A conservation group says some of the UK's richest coastal waters are being ruined by chemical pollution.

It believes some species, including the seahorse, could become extinct off British coasts.

It says the problem is caused by nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients found in sewage and used in agriculture, industry and fish farming.

And the remedy, it argues, is a change of government policy to tackle pollution at source.

In a report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, the conservationists - from WWF, the global environment network - say coastal waters are neglected by comparison with inland lakes and rivers.

WWF says some UK tidal rivers and estuaries have up to a hundred times more nutrients than the level the government recognises as causing a problem.

The report recognises "the serious threat posed by high nutrient levels in our freshwater habitats, but has yet to acknowledge that these nutrients are causing large-scale pollution in estuaries and the marine environment."

Fears for seahorses

Dr Simon Vowles of WWF said: "Estuaries are some of the UK's most biologically diverse areas, the interface between fresh and salt water, where land-based pollutants become highly concentrated.

"Current policy is threatening and reducing that diversity. The evidence is there for all to see: blankets of algal weed, an increase in red tides - toxic algal blooms - and eutrophication choking the life from our estuaries and coastal waters."

Eutrophication happens when excessive nutrients stimulate the growth of some marine organisms, whose population then balloons and kills off others.

Two seahorses PA
UK seahorses could be at risk
WWF is especially concerned at the damage to marine protected areas, key zones designated under the European Union's Habitats Directive.

It says the eelgrass meadows in these areas are at risk, imperilling the species that live among them.

Eelgrass is a marine plant, not a seaweed. WWF says only 20 of Britain's 155 estuaries still have eelgrass beds larger than a hectare, a steep decline over the last 80 years.

The meadows are home to seahorses, pipefish, bass and cuttlefish, and are important fish nursery grounds.

Dr Vowles told BBC News Online: "We do have quite a lot of seahorses off the south-west UK. If the eelgrass goes, so will they.

Cleaning up sewage

"Agriculture is the biggest source of nutrients, and we want the government to define vulnerable marine sites and then insist on nutrient reductions on nearby farmland.

"With sewage, we think it should do what many of our northern European neighbours do, and require sewage plants to use biological treatment.

"This removes the nitrates, the key nutrient in salt water - if they're absent, that limits eutrophication, just like phosphorus in fresh water.

"And fish-farming needs some sort of control - at present the legislation is very bitty.

Sewage enters sea BBC
A sewage outfall crosses a beach
"Government negligence is threatening to turn our coastal waters into deserts."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told BBC News Online: "We've made substantial improvements during the 1990s.

"We've reduced the amount of nitrate and phosphorus going into the marine environment from sewage by about 30%."

Hope of recovery

Brian Simpson, the director of Scottish Quality Salmon, said the salmon themselves needed clean water to survive.

He told BBC News Online: "According to independent scientists, our industry contributes a pretty small proportion of coastal nutrients."

WWF says the increase in nutrients means the UK's patchwork of marine habitats has been replaced by many fewer but more abundant species.

But it says some species, including the eelgrass, can re-establish themselves once nutrients are cut.

See also:

18 Jun 01 | Scotland
Salmon farming under fire
19 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
UK rejects dirty water tag
18 Aug 00 | Scotland
EU urged to help scallop industry
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