Hugh in £1.2m bid to create artificial reef
A £1.2 million artificial reef financed by TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's production company could be built off the South Devon.
The scheme, which has been given conditional approval by Torbay Council's harbour committee, would see up to 1,000 concrete balls placed on the seabed off Torquay.
Four areas have been earmarked as potential sites.
Rick Parker, a charter boat owner and expert diver, is behind the environmental project.
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He told the harbour committee the idea was to create pockets of protected wildlife around Tor Bay.
He said the artificial reef, if approved by planners, would be the first of its kind in the UK.
Mr Parker said: "I want to give something back and help marine wildlife flourish in the Bay. I want to do something right."
Mr Parker said he has the backing of TV celebrity and eco-campaigner Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall and his TV production company KIO Films.
He said Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall would put money into the project and would film the installation and progress of the reef balls as part his latest Fish Fight Channel Four programme.
Mr Parker told the committee: "This reef will encompass different aspects which can be used for educational and research purposes.
"The project would be monitored for three years during which time it would be a no-go zone while wildlife starts coming in. After that we will already be able to see what grows and what inhabits the reef."
Mr Parker said the aim of the reef was not primarily to attract divers like a shipwreck would but to increase biodiversity.
He added: "The spillage to other areas will have a positive impact on fisheries."
Each reef ball, which is 6ft wide, 5ft tall and weighs up to 2.7 tonnes, costs £1,200 to build and place on the seabed. Mr Parker said he hoped to see local fishermen involved in the scheme so they could benefit as well.
Areas highlighted as potential sites are Hope's Nose, Anstey's Cove, Long Quarry Point, Babbacombe Bay and Oddicombe beach.
Captain Kevin Mowatt, Torbay harbour master, said Torquay Fishermen's Association had written to him to express their "total opposition" to the scheme but the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust, the Brixham Sea Angling Club and the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed up to 12 miles, were in favour.
Harbour committee member Phil Butcher expressed some concern about the scheme saying it could mean large areas of Tor Bay become no-go zones to boats and costly all-year-round marker buoys would have to be put up to show there might be a danger to navigation.
He added: "It could raise the seabed by 5ft and could divert flows and tides."
Fellow adviser Captain Bob Curtis also expressed concern about "dumping tonnes of concrete on the seabed".
But Gordon Jennings and Elaine Hayes, two other advisers, said the idea should be explored and not be scrapped at the first outing. Ms Hayes, director of Torquay's coastal zoo Living Coasts, said that to think of nature as pristine was preposterous considering that the entire world had been shaped by man.
She said: "Maybe it is time to compensate for the damage we've caused to nature. I think it is a great idea. But I would like to see it go in phases so if it goes wrong it is easier to monitor and deal with.
"We should take our time with the monitoring so we can build a picture and better understand what's happening down there and whether it is positive or negative."
Torbay mayor Gordon Oliver, who attended the harbour committee meeting, said it was important to have a proper business plan in place and make sure there was no adverse effect from the scheme.
He said: "We already have important erosion problems at Meadfoot beach and Livermead where large holes in the sea defences threaten the roads.
"We need to look at all the implications of this reef project with regard to the impact on currents, tides and erosion."
The harbour committee voted unanimously to support the scheme in principle on condition further consultation takes place.