The Crown Estate, one of the UK's largest property owners and the public body which owns the sea-bed is not looking after its biodiversity, according to new research carried out at the University of Bristol.

In a paper published in the Journal of Water Law, Tom Appleby a Research Fellow from Bristol University's School of Law examines the current dispute between fisherman and environmentalists on the management of Lyme Bay, an area of the English Channel owned by the Crown Estate.

The research focuses on the competing rights of commercial scallop dredgers fishing in Lyme Bay, who use a technique that involves dragging steel bags with sprung-loaded teeth across the sea-bed, and the ownership rights of the Crown Estate, who the research suggests should be doing more to protect its property.

The dredging technique has damaged the reef of Lyme Bay, home to a variety of marine species. Many of these are attached to the sea-bed including a protected species called the pink sea fan coral.

Currently nearly all fishing (commercial and recreational) in UK waters is permitted by ancient unwritten rights.

The Crown Estate's sea-bed is covered by a range of different legislation including the 2006 NERC Act which states that every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is possible, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity.

In addition the area is also part of a UK biodiversity action plan to maintain the reef and the natural life it supports. The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act states it is a criminal offence to damage certain scheduled species, of which the pink sea fan is one.

Tom Appleby said: "The research highlights the need for clarification in the law as to whether such excessive damage to Crown Estate property can take place as a legitimate activity for those in pursuit of the public right to fish, without causing a tort [wrongful act] to the owner of the sea-bed.

"The Crown Estate should also actively manage its marine estate to protect biodiversity, including litigation where necessary to stop such damage."

Damage by fishing in Lyme Bay - A problem of regulation or ownership? by Tom Appleby was published on August 14 in the Journal of Water Law.

The research was funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation - but does not represent their views.