'Rogue' fisherman's net blamed for serious damage to reef
January 13 2012 Lewis Smith
A ballan wrasse being freed from entanglement
Rich Stevenson, Diving and Marine Solutions
A net lost by a fishermen has caused “significant damage” to the animal life growing on an artificial reef formed by a former Royal Navy frigate.
HMS Scylla was sunk deliberately in 2004 to create an artificial reef, the first in Europe, for divers to visit in Whitsand Bay near Plymouth and to create a home for rare marine animals.
A net snagged on the reef in November, covering the entire wreck, but sea conditions have been so dangerous for the last few weeks that divers have only just managed to inspect the damage.
Videos and photographs taken by divers who swam down to the Scylla Reef have now shown that the animal life growing on the ship have suffered considerable damage because of the net catching on them. More than 250 species could be affected.
The bodies of many crabs and ship trapped by the net were observed, and that of a cormorant which is thought to have dived down in search of food when it got caught in the net. However, divers were able to free a number of fish that were trapped but were still alive.
The full extent of the damage is still to be assessed but scientists from the National Marine Aquarium, which is responsible for the Scylla, fear many of the slow-growing reef animals have been damaged or killed. A new colony of rare pink sea fans is among those thought to have been severely set back.
Dr David Gibson, Managing Director of the aquarium, said: “We are horrified by the extent of the damage which has been caused on the reef, and by the lack of care and attention as a result of irresponsible fishing practices.
“It has taken eight years to establish such a diverse community of marine life on the reef, something that is likely to take just as long – if not longer - to recover and return.
“The dive team is working hard to remove the net, helping to release trapped animals and making the reef safe, so once again it can be enjoyed by diverse marine life and recreational divers.”
How the net became caught on the reef remains unclear but fishing, unless carried out by unlicensed operators, is legal in the area. Experienced fishermen know, however, that it is inadvisable to set nets too close to submerged objects such as the Scylla. Divers hope to recover identity tags from the net that will reveal the fisherman’s identity.
After seeing a picture of part of the netting, a spokesman for the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations said it appeared to be a static net that is “typically used around wrecks” and is worth about £200.
When the project to create an artificial reef was underway the National Marine Aquarium tried unsuccessfully to get the area around it declared a no take zone. More recently it was proposed as one of the first marine protected areas to be created under new legislation.
The net is still on the reef but when weather conditions are suitable scientists hope to be able to encourage local Plymouth fishermen to join the operation to lift it off the Scylla causing as little additional damage as possible. They hope such a project would create closer ties with the “good, responsible fishermen” in the region.
“This isn’t the action of the fishing industry,” said Paul Cox, head of science at the aquarium. “It’s a rogue fisherman.”
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