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Page last updated at 17:01 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 18:01 UK
Recovery begins at coral reefs
By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Coral reef at Lyme Bay
The Lyme Bay reefs are starting to come back to life, as shown in this photo taken by the survey team

Marine biologists say there are signs of recovery at the coral reefs in Lyme Bay - just over a year after scallop dredging was banned.

The team from Plymouth University has spent two months surveying the reef as part of a three-year monitoring programme at the exclusion zone.

Sea-fans, sponges and coral are all starting to emerge again.

The government imposed the 60 square-mile dredging ban despite fears from fishermen that it would devastate them.

A dead man's finger
A dead man's finger, captured on camera by the team

The exclusion zone came into effect in July 2008, following years of campaigning by conservationists, including the Devon Wildlife Trust.

They argued that the rare and important coral reefs were being wrecked by intensive fishing methods.

Lyme Bay is home to around 300 recorded species of plants and animals, including nationally protected pink sea-fan and the extremely rare sunset coral. The exclusion zone covers 10% of the bay, from West Bay to Beer Head.

The marine biologists at Plymouth University are assessing any changes on the sea bed within the ban area, and also comparing the difference between the exclusion zone and the area where dredging is still permitted.

"We aren't making our conclusions yet, but we are definitely seeing good signs of recovery in the bay," said Emma Sheehan of Plymouth University's marine biology and ecology research centre.

"We did our baseline survey in September 2008 and we have noticed improvements this time.

"Things are coming back to life. There are small sea-fans, sponges, dead man's fingers and soft coral inside the exclusion zone.

Damaged coral reef
How a section of the coral reef looked before the exclusion zone

"Outside the box though, everything is pretty dredged."

Emma used a video camera to survey some 70 sites within the exclusion zone, while divers got a closer view of the seabed and were able to take some stunning photos.

"It will take us quite some time before we reach our conclusions from the data from this survey," said Emma.

"It certainly won't be this side of Christmas. But things are looking really promising."

The government and Natural England are funding the monitoring, which is due to end following the 2010 survey. After that, the marine biologists hope to carry on the work if they can find alternative backing.

The exclusion zone may be good news for the coral reefs, but fishermen say it is bad news for them. When the dredging ban was introduced, fishing industry representatives predicted a £3m annual loss to the local economy.

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