AN underwater alien that smothers marine life to death has invaded the Solent, the Daily Echo can reveal.

Scientists discovered colonies of the carpet sea squirt in marinas in Gosport, Lymington and Cowes.

It is the first time the highly invasive species has ever been found in English waters.

Marine experts last night warned the creature could decimate native shellfish stocks by suffocating them.

Stopping its spread has been made a top priority.

Local anglers and sailors were called on to report any sightings.

The spongy invader, which probably arrived by attaching itself to the hulls of yachts, spreads rapidly by squirting tiny, tadpole-like larvae.

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Originally from Japan, it has caused major economic and environmental problems in Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and on the continent.

Dr Antony Jensen, a coastal marine ecologist at the National Oceanography Centre, said: “If this particular one (species) does get going, and is able to survive, then I think it’s going to cause a lot of problems and it could be quite nasty.”

It has a distinctive orangeyyellow or mustard colour, is leathery to touch and often appears as pale flat patches.

Didemnum vexillum, the alien’s scientific name, was spotted late last year during a Government-commissioned survey of the coastline.

As well as the Solent, the Daily Echo can reveal populations were also found in Devon’s Dart Estuary.

It comes 18 months after the first colony in British waters was discovered at Holyhead harbour, north Wales.

A spokesman for the Department for environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said a plan to eradicate the creature was being drawn up.

“At the end of last year, Defra commissioned work to survey the presence of the sea squirt in England and as a result, identified populations in the Dart estuary, Lymington, Cowes and Gosport,”

the spokesman said.

“We are now looking how to control and manage sea squirts, drawing on the experience from the Welsh eradication programme.

“Decisions on the appropriate level of control of the sea squirt will be made once the report is complete.”

The sea squirt grows in either thin strips or long rope-like growths that cover underwater structures such as hulls, buoys, pontoons and rock outcrops.

It grows over mussel, clam and oyster beds and has also been known to clog up fish farming equipment.

People were warned not to try scraping the creatures off themselves as tiny fragments can break off and spread the infection far and wide.

In Holyhead, it is being tackled by fixing massive plastic bags around the affected underwater structures to suffocate the sea squirt.

Boat owners are also being asked to make extra efforts to keep boat hulls clean and free of fouling to help prevent its spread.

Chris McMullon, Natural England’s senior coastal specialist in the south east, added: “Tackling this problem is an urgent priority for marine teams if valuable habitats are going to be protected, but we know this will not be easy.

“Vigilance on the part of boat owners is critical if efforts are going to be effective.”

Ben Lippiett, who manages Gosport’s Haslar Marina, confirmed the creature had been found attached to a couple of local yachts.

“They have been here for some time. When you try scrapping them off they can squirt you in the face,”

Mr Lippiett said.

In January, a small colony was found at a marina in Largs, Scotland, which is owned by the Lymington-based firm Yacht Haven Marinas.

The company’s managing director, Dylan Kalis, was yesterday unaware of the local discovery and said they’d been given no advice on how to deal with the problem.

“We have not been asked to do anything and it’s news to me that it’s now in Lymington,” Mr Kalis said.

● Any sightings should be reported to the Non-native Species Hotline on 0845 600 3078