Norway Protects Cold Water Reefs

OSLO, Norway, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - Norway today announced that it will protect one of its cold water reefs before it is further damaged by trawling vessels. Discovered and mapped only last summer, Norway's 1,000 year old Tisler Reef lies along the Norway-Sweden border at a depth of 74 to 155 metres (243 to 508 feet).

"Norway wants to see the destruction of cold water coral reefs ended," said Norwegian Minister of the Environment, BÝrge Brende. "We have taken the first steps to stop the destruction of our own reefs and more steps will follow. I call on other nations to increase their activities to protect their coral reefs against both the direct and indirect threats."

To date, Norway is the only country to have established protection measures for cold water corals in European waters. Previously, Norway protected four additional reefs from trawling activity, including, earlier this year, the RÝst Reef, the world's largest known cold water coral reef.

Protection of the Tisler Reef is recognized as a Gift to the Earth, the highest award for a globally significant conservation achievement offered by WWF, the international conservation organization.


Remains of fishing gear among broken corals on a Norwegian reef, May 1998. (Photo courtesy Norwegian Institute of Marine Research)
WWF warned that up to half of the world's cold water corals could already be destroyed. Scientists fear that 30 to 50 percent of these corals have already been lost from the impacts of bottom trawling, marine pollution and oil and gas exploration.

WWF is asking ministers at this month's Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment (OSPAR) in Bremen, Germany to ban trawling on certain cold water coral reefs in the Northeast Atlantic, and for an exclusion of oil and gas prospecting and development in the vicinity of reefs designated for protection.

Although coral reefs are normally associated with the tropics, they exist in cold water too. The Darwin Mounds, a collection of hundreds of sand and cold water coral mounds north of Scotland, were discovered in 1998, and are already damaged by deep water fishing.

More species exist on the mounds than in the surrounding ocean bottom, but these species are being destroyed by fishing vessels. High frequency sonar surveys of the mounds show seabed scars, areas of smashed and fragmented coral, that are the result of trawling.

After this initial research in 2000, fishing activity has continued in the region, which may have resulted in further damage to these fragile deep water corals.


Live corals on the Darwin Mounds (Photo by Brian Bett, Southampton Oceanographic Centre, courtesy JNCC)
British Secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Margaret Beckett has not delivered on her October 2001 pledge to protect the Darwin Mounds by designating them as a Special Area of Conservation, a promise WWF is urging her to keep.

"There appears to be little political will in the UK to follow through on a 596 day old promise by Margaret Beckett to protect these reefs, which are likely to be smashed up even more by deep water fishing," said Helen McLachlan, Marine Policy Officer for WWF Scotland.

"We are staggered by the UK Government's continued failure to take steps to protect this unique habitat. Norway has really shown the way - what a shame the UK seems unwilling to be equally committed."

The lophelia corals that make up these reefs make an important contribution to the health of the seas by providing habitats for sea fans, sponges, worms, starfish, sea urchins and crustaceans, WWF says. They also serve as spawning and nursery grounds for several fish species, including some commercial fishes such as orange roughy and grenadiers.

"Unique cold water reefs such as the Darwin Mounds are invaluable breeding grounds for commercial stocks," said McLachlan. "They have taken thousands of years to establish yet they can be wiped out in an instant by trawling activity."