THE LARGEST deep-sea sponge reef in UK waters has been discovered off the coast of Scotland.
Researchers found the major reef ecosystem during an ocean bed survey hundreds of miles off Sutherland in the north west, it was revealed yesterday.
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Scientists at Marine Scotland made the find while carrying out surveys at Rosemary Bank seamount, an extinct volcano.
The sponges have been reported to be the most extensive and pristine sponge reefs to have been reported in UK waters.
The Scottish Government has designated the region as a marine-protected area in order to safeguard its ecosystem.
Sponges filter large volumes of water as well as providing refuge for a wide variety of marine life.
Experts say the sponges have a skeletal structure and resemble bird’s nests, mushrooms or large cheeses.
Francis Neat, chief scientist on the survey, said deep-sea sponge reefs such as the one discovered off Scotland can take hundreds of years to form.
He said: “They provide refuge for a great diversity of marine life; among the sponges we saw sharks, skates, octopus and crustaceans.
“The new data from this survey reaffirms the case for designation of the Rosemary Bank as a marine-protected area and will allow us to provide a stronger scientific basis for developing management plans for the area.”
Designating Rosemary Bank a marine-protected area will help this unusual ecosystem continue to thrive.
The environment secretary, Richard Lochhead, said: “Scottish waters cover an area around five times bigger than our land mass and are miles deep in places.
“These hidden gems offer a fascinating glimpse of the treasures that still await discovery under the waves.
“Scotland’s seas are home to a diverse range of precious sea life and it is our responsibility to protect this fragile environment.
“This is why earlier this year we designated Rosemary Bank as a marine-protected area, to ensure the protection of ecosystems like this.”
WWF Scotland director Lang Banks said: “This latest discovery should now help this particular area to be better managed and underlines exactly why marine protected areas are so important.
“Globally, less than 3 per cent of the world’s oceans are protected.
“If we’re to better protect the marine environment and the livelihoods of all those who depend upon healthy seas, then it’s now time for many more nations to embrace the idea of marine-protected areas.”
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