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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 June, 2003, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
Hopes rise for Europe's sea life
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Hopes are rising that Europe's marine life may soon start enjoying the better protection it was promised years ago.

Prestige, AP
The Prestige highlighted the urgency of the situation
Environment ministers are expected soon to announce measures to stop the decline of many creatures.

They will probably include protection for several bird and fish species, and a network of marine protected areas.

Conservationists are welcoming the programme, but say it is only a beginning.

The ministers are meeting on 25 and 26 June in the German city of Bremen, with officials working from 23 June.

The meeting is being held by two organisations, the Ospar Convention on protecting the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic, and the Helsinki Convention for the protection of the Baltic.

Five year wait

Five years ago, in the Portuguese city of Sintra, ministers agreed to establish a network of marine wildlife reserves to protect wildlife from the Arctic to the Azores.

They have not been able until now to develop the criteria for action, or agree how to apply them.

Wind farm turbines, BBC
Many new ventures are heading out to sea
The UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and its global partner BirdLife want the protected areas to include offshore reserves as well as ones in territorial waters.

The head of the RSPB/BirdLife delegation in Bremen is Dr Duncan Huggett.

He said: "We need to be looking further, to areas where the European birds directive does not apply - in other words, to Norwegian waters and the high seas.

"Offshore areas contain immensely important concentrations of seabirds and other marine wildlife in what superficially looks like a featureless seascape to us."

The Bremen meeting is due to give protection to five bird species: the lesser black-backed gull, Steller's eider, little shearwater, roseate tern and Iberian guillemot.

There were no more than 25 pairs of Iberian guillemots before the 2002 oil spill from the tanker Prestige, and ornithologists think it may now be too late to save the bird from extinction.

'Small beginning'

The European Union (EU) says it does not want Steller's eider and the little shearwater given protection until there is more advice from scientists about their plight, so Bremen may do nothing for them.

Dr Huggett said: "The parties to Ospar have been arguing for five years about which species and habitats are threatened while the losses have continued unabated.

Leatherback turtle, BBC
Leatherbacks are under immense pressure
"Now they've agreed on a small list that they can finally do something to help rather than just talk about.

"It's a small beginning, but it will serve as a bridgehead... Until now there has been a rather northern European bias, so we want Ospar to pay as much attention to its southern regions and their seabird species, such as the Balearic shearwater and Bulwer's petrel."

Other species likely to be chosen for protection include five invertebrates, loggerhead and leatherback turtles, the blue whale, the harbour porpoise, and 14 kinds of fish.

These include several threatened by commercial fishing, including cod, which may prompt more heart searching by the EU. Apart from wildlife, the Bremen meeting will be discussing fisheries, shipping, radio-active discharges, offshore wind farms, and hazardous chemicals.

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