NEW bylaws to protect marine habitats have been welcomed as “some of the best conservation management” possible.

The new scheme ecccompasses two new bylaws introduced by the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority which cover 25 per cent of coastal waters off Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

The Bottom Towed Fishing Gear bylaw manages trawling and dredging and the Prohibition of Gathering (Sea Fisheries Resources) in Seagrass Beds applies to bait collectors and hand gatherers working in seagrass beds.

Pockets of Poole Harbour with areas of seagrass, Studland to Portland and Lyme Bay are among the area covered by the new bylaws, which carry maximum court fines for contravention of £50,000, although warnings and fixed penalties can be issued by the IFCA.

The European Marine Sites cover sensitive reefs which are home to slow growing sea fan corals, while the Whitley Lake seagrass stabilises the seabed as well as being the habitat of seahorses, pipefish and nursery grounds for a number of commercial fish species.

Trawling and dredging can decimate the reefs while seagrass is easily damaged by bait digging, which can also have a detrimental effect on the many species of birds feeding on the mudflats.

“It will make a huge amount of difference,” said Emma Rance, marine conservation officer at Dorset Wildlife Trust “These bylaws are the strongest legal protection the marine environment has in Dorset. “They will help protect it for future generations.”

Robert Clark, chief officer of Southern IFCA said: “Our coastal fisheries are very important and the introduction of these bylaws and the support and participation of the community in their development is a significant milestone in the sustainable management of our coastal waters.

“These new bylaws protect important habitats and it is these habitats that support our important coastal fisheries,” he added.