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Tuesday, 16 July, 2002, 01:04 GMT 02:04 UK
'Extinction' claim over North Sea cod
Oiled seal   Wildlife Trusts
Marine wildlife face growing risks (Wildlife Trusts)

Overfishing has driven the cod to virtually vanish from the North Sea, conservationists say.

They say it is now commercially extinct, meaning it makes no economic sense to try to catch it.

Scientists have warned for years that this was likely to happen.

But the claim marks the first time anyone has suggested that cod stocks have actually fallen to so low a level.

It comes from the Wildlife Trusts, a partnership of the 47 county trusts which work and campaign for wildlife protection across the UK.

Damaged beyond repair

Joan Edwards, of the Trusts, told BBC News Online: "The cod really have gone commercially. Most of the cod we eat in the UK now come from Iceland."

Dead dolphin on beach
Beach litter - and a dolphin (Cornwall Wildlife Trust(
In a report, Our Dying Seas?, the Trusts decry the continued commercial fishing for species like the sandeel, on which many food fish and wild species depend.

The report says another species at severe risk is the unique horse mussel, found in Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland.

It says: "The once vast horse mussel colonies on the seabed that formed a vital habitat for a wide diversity of species have been almost irreparably damaged by commercial dredging for queen scallops."

It blames fishing practices for the plight of several small cetacean species in UK waters:

  • fishing for bass in the western English Channel by trawlers operating in pairs, which in one recent study recorded 53 common dolphins caught in 12 net hauls. The Trusts are campaigning for the practice to be banned;
  • the deep-water gill net hake fishery, using thin nets floating just above the sea bed. The report estimates the harbour porpoise annual mortality this is said to cause around Cornwall at 6.2%, which it says is unsustainable;
  • the use of monofilament gill nets, which the report says "may have created a direct conflict with species such as the bottlenose dolphin";
  • the introduction of "rockhopper" trawls, spring-loaded nets able to cope with previously undisturbed reef areas that are home to rare species like the pink seafan and the sunset coral.
The report says the number of dolphins drowned or injured in fishing nets is "dramatically increasing", with a record 500 animals stranded this year, most through contact with nets.

Jewel anemones   Wildlife Trusts
Seabed life is at risk (Wildlife Trusts)
It says bottlenose dolphins off Cornwall have probably declined by almost two-thirds in the last ten years, with possibly only 350 left in UK waters. The species, it estimates, could become extinct here by 2012.

It also wants more protection for basking sharks, the sea's second largest fish at 10 metres in maturity.

And now that leatherback turtles are recognised as part of the UK's native fauna, rather than occasional vagrants, the report urges better protection for them from fishing gear.

The sea returns

It says 100 hectares of salt marsh are lost annually in southern and eastern England to coastal development and erosion. This destroys a habitat for migrating birds and fish.

The Trusts have bought a coastal farm in Essex where the sea defences will be breached, permitting the creation of more than 80 ha of salt marsh and mudflat.

The report criticises salmon farming in Scotland, which it says produces large amounts of polluting nutrients.

The Trusts say the future lies in ecosystem management, a process they call integrated marine stewardship. They want the government to issue a policy statement, to introduce new laws, and to unify the management of marine resources.

See also:

12 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
04 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
04 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
28 May 02 | Europe
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