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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 07:36 GMT
Survey finds huge coral fields
Ross coral found in the survey
Large shoals of fish, ross corals and sea sponges were spotted
A survey off the Devon coast has uncovered vast underwater fields of starfish and coral.

The rich pockets of marine life were discovered by a Devon Wildlife Trust survey in Lyme Bay.

The European Union-funded sonar and video survey was carried out this autumn at Beer Home Ground, a fishing area about three miles from the Devon coast.

The results have amazed marine experts at the Trust, who feared dredging for scallops might have completely degraded the area.

Lyme Bay Reefs Project officer Richard Stanford said: "Dredging has definitely damaged the area, but thankfully there are large pockets of seabed which have not been dredged.

Sea sponge found in the survey
Marine experts feared dredging might have degraded the area
"These pockets hold a very rich, very diverse range of marine life.

"There were dense colonies of corals like the nationally-protected pink sea fan, and in one area several hectares were packed with an underwater forest of brittle stars, a kind of starfish."

Large shoals of fish, ross corals and sea sponges were spotted as well.

Mr Stanford said local fishermen, who had fished the area for decades, were also amazed as, for the first time, they saw with their own eyes what the reefs actually looked like.

Mini submarine

He said: "There was some concern that there was nowhere in Beer Home Ground that had not been dredged.

"The starting point for doing the survey was the fishermen saying there was probably nothing there worth protecting."

A mini-submarine carrying the sonar was towed behind a boat and a video camera pulled along on a line just above the sea bed.

The survey is the latest effort by the Wildlife Trust to work with fishermen to protect the area known as the Lyme Bay Reefs.

Two nearby areas have already been closed to fishing through agreement with the fishermen.

Funding for that work has come from Defra, English Nature and Devon County Council.

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