WIGHTLINK should be stopped from introducing a new fleet of larger ferries until a proper study can determine their likely impact on the environment, an MP said last nightWEDS.

Desmond Swayne, Tory MP for New Forest West, told a Commons debate he was concerned that the ferries may harm the salt marshes that protect Lymington Harbour.

He told the Daily Echo: "Wightlink has decided unilaterally that they will start using the new ferries from December.

"I am demanding that ministers take up the matter with the Department for Transport to see what legal restraints there are on Wightlink.

"It's now time for ministers to call for a full environmental impact assessment, which it is in their power to do."

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The row centres on fears that the new ferries, which will operate between Lymington and Yarmouth, may contribute to the erosion of salt marshes, which include protected wildlife under the European Habitats Directive.

Damage to the salt marshes would, in turn, threaten the future of Lymington Harbour, which depends on the marshes for its survival, Mr Swayne said.

The MP accused Wightlink of wanting to replace two ferries with "three gigantic" new vessels which, he said, would "intimidate the leisure yachtsmen of Lymington", with potentially serious consequences for the economy.

He added: "I want to make sure due process takes place, with a full environmental assessment."

A spokeswoman for Wightlink said the new "Wight Class" ferries, two of which had already arrived in Lymington, were needed because the passenger safety certificates for the older C-class ferries expired early next year.

The number of cars carried by the ferries would increase by just 15 to an average of 65.