Last week Falmouth Harbour Commissioners (FHC) revealed it hoped the scientific trial would begin in May, subject to consent being granted by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), and last for approximately six months. The trial will be carried out independently by Plymouth University’s Marine Institute.
Proposals to dredge a deep water channel into the docks have been held back by concerns around the impact of moving maerl, a calcified seaweed that covers the seabed in parts of the Fal, and the effect this could have on the aquatic species living among it. Less than 2% of dead maerl within the special area of conservation (SAC) in Falmouth harbour will be affected by the dredging proposals, together will a small area of live maerl.
The approach to the harbour has a minimum depth of 5.1m, which is shallow by the standards of modern ports, making it unsuitable for larger vessels, particularly the ever-increasing demand for visiting cruise ships. Without dredging, the fear is that Falmouth’s future as a thriving working port would be threatened. Dredging a channel will safeguard existing port functions and open up new opportunities by accommodating larger vessels, including those that can support the growing marine energy industry.
Chris Pomfret, Chairman of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, which has formally agreed to support the dredging project, said: “We welcome that this is an independent trial carried out by world class scientists, which will hopefully break the deadlock.
“We believe in this instance the social and economic benefits to Cornwall, not just to Falmouth, are overwhelmingly greater than the relatively small detriment to the environment. Let’s hope the trial will not only prove this, but be recognised as such. Cornwall is one of the poorer economic areas in the UK and needs to prioritise growth and job creation particularly when the environmental effect seems to be very small indeed.”
Thelma Sorensen, Chairman of Cornwall Business Partnership, said: “This trial is very much welcomed as it will finally resolve the issues around the environmental impact of dredging in Falmouth Harbour.
“Should the outcome produce the evidence to proceed, this will allow Falmouth Harbour to become a real economic driver for the town and the wider Cornish economy as it has done so successfully in the past.”
Richard Glover, Chief Executive of Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, said: “This is good news. Our members place the development of Falmouth harbour high on the list of priorities for Cornwall’s economy.
“Businesses tell us that Cornwall’s environment plays a very large part in our economic success, as well as being an important social asset, so we should not say “yes” to every contentious development. However it has always seemed that the benefits of this scheme outweigh any potential negatives.
“Let’s hope that this research can move things on, as we have been talking about this project for a long time.”
FHC has agreed to undertake the trial to provide new evidence to inform the appropriate assessment undertaken by the MMO. Based on Natural England’s advice, the MMO could not conclude that there would be no adverse effect on the integrity of the Fal and Helford Estuaries Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in January 2011. The trial conclusion will help the MMO re-visit its appropriate assessment decision in light of the new information.
Plymouth University Marine Institute has overseen the design of the trial, which will involve the careful extraction of a limited amount of the surface maerl habitat, storing it at the surface and relaying it in the same location. Samples taken before and after, and from adjacent sites, will determine the impact on the translocation.
An independent scientific advisory panel, set up by the MMO, has advised and agreed methodology and will ensure that conclusions of the trial are scientifically robust. This will enable the MMO to make a decision on whether translocated maerl will reach a satisfactory condition within an appropriate timescale.
The trial will be funded by a joint arrangement between FHC and Cornwall Council, which is still being agreed in detail.
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