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 Home / About Us / Communication / News / MESH Project finds huge impact of man on underwater nature 
MESH Project finds huge impact of man on underwater nature «  Back

Last month, a team of MESH Project scientists undertook a collaborative survey explored the deep underwater canyons at the edge of the continental shelf, 320 km off Lands End directly between the UK, Ireland and France.  The cruise involved three MESH partners: the UK'S Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the British Geological Survey and Ireland's Marine Institute. 

They were hoping to find large areas of cold water coral reef, such as those found further north off Ireland, Scotland and Norway. These coral reefs are a rare habitat, easily damaged by seabed activities like bottom trawling for fish, and in need of protection.

Starting at around 200m water depth, these canyons plummet to the abyssal plain over 4,000m below, but almost nothing is known about what lives there, on the seabed.  The survey mapped the shape, topography and geology of three canyons, which cover an area of 850km2 (more than 120,000 football pitches), using a variety of seabed mapping techniques and instruments.  A high resolution deep water camera was lowered by winch to capture video and still images of the seabed at depths of up to 1,000m.

Scientists found that the canyons were made up of fine muddy sands at their tops, on the edge of the continental shelf, the home to delicate seapens, anemones, sea cucumbers, and patches of featherstars.  There was also evidence of former coral mounds at the tops of the canyons, similar to those found on the edge of the Irish continental shelf.  Those coral mounds have been proposed as Marine Protected Areas under the EU Habitats Directive, and protecting them from fishing is currently under consideration by the EU.  The mounds found in UK waters during this survey contained only broken coral rubble, where we would have expected to find living coral. 

Further down the canyons the seabed was made up of layers of silty clay, with steep outcrops of white chalk at depths of around 900m.  These rocky outcrops did support a few cold water corals and other species, but not as much as could have been expected.  One small area of coral reef was found, with bright orange cold water corals, anemones, starfish and featherstars, and a few fish.   Several discarded fishing nets, plastic bags and boxes were also seen.

Charlotte Johnston, who leads JNCC's effort in recommending offshore areas for conservation to the UK Government said: “it was fantastic to find out what is on the seabed in this area, and to find cold water corals here in a different situation to those found in other parts of UK and Irish waters, but also disappointing to find this much evidence of damage, presumably by trawling, to former coral mounds ”

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