Oceana and North Sea Foundation Call For Protection of Rare Reefs

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The Brown Bank has been found to contain a diverse array of species (Photo: Oceana) 

Oceana and the North Sea Foundation have called for the Brown Bank, a shared area of the North Sea floor between the UK and the Netherlands, to be designated as a marine protected area.

The call for protection comes after a 2017 collaborative expedition between conservation group Oceana, the North Sea Foundation and scientists from the DISCLOSE project, which discovered fragile and ecologically important Sabellaria worm reefs in the Dutch waters of the Brown Bank. These rare biodiversity hotspots are home to a diverse array of fauna, and were believed to have disappeared entirely from the Netherlands' waters.

'We call on the Dutch government to urgently protect the Brown Bank,' said Ricardo Aguilar, research director for Oceana Europe. 'The discovery of worm reefs in the Brown Bank comes as a total surprise. These fragile habitats were thought to have been long-extinct in Dutch waters, due to intensive human activity, including overfishing. Preserving these living reefs will also preserve many species that depend on them,' Aguilar added. 

Sabellaria spinulosa – or ross worm – is a 'habitat engineer', which aggregates in colonies of millions of tube-building individuals, effectively forming biogenic reef structures that provide habitat for a multitude of species. An earlier Oceana expedition in 2016 found ross worm aggregations in UK waters of the Brown Bank, suggesting that reefs may also occur there. Because the reefs are vulnerable to physical damage, ross worm reefs are listed as threatened/declining by the OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. As a result, Oceana has recommended that the UK government conduct comprehensive seabed mapping of the Brown Bank, in search of other Sabellaria reefs.

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Ross worm reefs are vulnerable to damage through bottom trawling (Photo: Oceana)

'The discovery of these reefs in our North Sea provides hope for the future of this precious ecosystem' said Floris van Hest, director of the North Sea Foundation.' To preserve this future, these reefs need immediate protection.'

No measures are currently in place to protect the Dutch side of the Brown Bank, which is intensively fished by trawlers dragging heavy fishing gear across the seabed. The area is already known to qualify for inclusion in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, due to its importance for seabirds. It also provides important spawning and nursery habitat for commercial fish species such as cod, herring, mackerel, and plaice. Although the biodiversity importance of the Brown Bank has been recognised for many years, authorities have yet to prioritise its protection.

Investigations are ongoing, and the North Sea Foundation together with DISCLOSE researchers will return to the Brown Bank on 18 May for further investigation of the reefs.

The full report can be downloaded at: Protecting the North Sea: Brown Bank 





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