CAMPAIGNERS battling to halt the "devastation" of the seabed off West Dorset's world heritage coast collected more than 200 signatures at Bridport on Saturday.

Members of the town's environment group were in Bucky Doo Square gathering support for a Marine Conservation Society petition to safeguard important marine habitats.

It calls on the Government to introduce Highly Protected Marine Reserves - or "No-Take Zones" - to protect vulnerable marine species and allow fishing stocks to recover.

Visitors to the stall also signed 40 individual letters to the Secretary of State for the Environment, welcoming conservation proposals in the Government's Marine Bill White Paper - but asking that the measures to protect marine biodiversity be further strengthened.

The issue has been highlighted recently by the presence at West Bay of a number of scallop-dredging trawlers, which land their catches at the harbour every evening.

Environment group chairman Susan Anders, said: "We would like to see more protection for the special marine life of Dorset's coastal waters, such as the beautiful but fragile pink sea fans, through the establishment of a No-take Zone, although this would only need to cover a small area of Lyme Bay.

"We also want to support local fishermen using less damaging methods, because their livelihood is threatened by the destructive activities of others. We understand that some sort of voluntary agreement may be in place, but it is unclear how effective this is. Above all we want the Government to act decisively to stop the devastation of the sea bed off the World Heritage Coast and protect local fish breeding grounds."

Environment Group member Gill Fifield added: "It was wonderful to see so much support for the Marine Reserves Now campaign and it was clear that there is strong local feeling about the current damaging and unsustainable practices."

But Lyme Bay fisherman Chris Wason, Vice chairman of the Southwest Inshore Scallopers Association, says there is no need for a petition and the Environment Group has got it wrong.

"What they have got to remember is they have only noticed a concentration of boats since West Bay harbour has been developed. There are a lot more scallop dredgers in the area using West Bay harbour to land but overall the number of boats is the same as before.

"They are convinced we are doing all sorts of damage. I have personally been doing full-time fishing since 1980, and my family before me did it too.

"But this designation wouldn't only stop scallop dredging, it would also affect trawling, which will really affect me. It has come to the point where we cannot make a living, what with fishing quotas as well - we have such poor fishing quotas in this country."

Mr Wason, skipper of the Lyme based Sea Seeker, said fisherman had already signed up to a voluntary agreement for three no-go zones - off Beer Head, Lyme Regis and West Bay.

"Quite often we get into arguments with environmentalists, but this compromise we have made doesn't get mentioned," he added.