A HARD-HITTING report published today has revealed further evidence of the crisis faced by wildlife in the North Sea.

An investigation by English Nature, the Government's conservation arm, concluded that England's marine environment has suffered alarming damage from factors including pollution and overfishing.

The report, which identified the North Sea as one of the big concerns, said recent initiatives, including a drive to reduce sewage and industrial waste, had not prevented the decline around Britain's coastline.

English Nature chairman Sir Martin Doughty, who launches the 80-page report in London today, said there were 35 per cent less fish in the North Sea than 25 years ago and there was an urgent need to reduce the size of the European fishing fleet because it is depleting stocks too rapidly.

Because large and old fish are now extremely rare, plaice are a quarter of the size they were in 1902 and cod have more than halved in size.

He said the diversity of the North Sea marine food chain had halved between 1880 and 1981 and the rate of decline had accelerated over the past 20 years, through overfishing, poor water quality and global warming.

Although there has been a reduction in industrial pollution from chemicals such as mercury, down 80 per cent since 1985, recovery programmes started now will take years to have an effect.

Such toxins damaged the immune systems of seals and porpoises, making them vulnerable to disease, and new man-made chemicals were disrupting the breeding process of flounders in estuaries, said Sir Martin.

He also expressed concern that since 1984, nitrogen discharges into the UK's seas, much of it from agricultural run-off, had risen 20 per cent, causing an overdose of nutrients which damaged the marine environment.

Sir Martin said: "From the evidence we have studied, we conclude that despite the efforts made so far to protect it, the state of marine and coastal biodiversity is not good enough,

"The marine ecosystem is showing signs of significant stress and low resilience to continuing pressure. This all adds up to an alarm call for those who use, and manage, our coasts and sea, and care about the future."

Sir Martin's warning echoes reports released in July by The Wildlife Trusts, and in March by the Durham Biodiversity Partnership (DBAP), whose members include ecologists, councils, government agencies, and firms.

DBAP launched action plans to preserve endangered mackerel, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises, Minke whales and basking sharks, all of which are found off the North-East coast.

Representatives of industry and agriculture have said they are committed to reducing pollution, and the British fishing industry has said it aims to conserve stocks without damaging livelihoods