Tag Archives: conservation

Interview with Adrian Shephard from MARINElife

Here at The Seahorse Project our main focus is, of course, seahorses. However, every now and again we like to explore what else is happening in the world of marine conservation. Our most recent discovery was the work of MARINElife, a registered charity that was originally set up in 1995 and known as the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme. MARINElife collect data and aim to develop a growing portfolio of marine mammals and sea-birds, in Europe. Adrian Shephard has been volunteering for the charity for around nine years and is the current Chairman of Trustees. He spoke to us about the charity’s main objectives and why marine conservation is important to them.

Chairman of Trustees for MARINElife, Adrian Shephard. Image via Tom Brereton

What is the main focus of MARINElife?

The primary responsibility of MARINElife is the research and conservation of marine species; primarily whales, dolphins, porpoises and seabirds. We do that through a programme of data collection from both small vessels, large vessels and from the public. We also carry out education and training programmes for the general public and members of the local community, be that angling boats or dive boats, to make them aware of the wildlife on their doorstep and get them involved.

Where do MARINElife carry out their research?             

The work is primarily focused in Northern Europe. We work from the UK but are often on board ‘ships of opportunity’ as we call them, ferries to you and me, and those are sailing from the UK to adjacent countries. We currently operate across ten or eleven ferry routes leaving the UK going to Spain, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and other parts of Scandinavia. We also work with partner organisations who have connections with ferries generating out of other countries across Europe. We work with a group in the Netherlands and smaller organisations across France and Ireland collecting data on whales, dolphins and porpoises. We put that into a larger data set to get a bigger picture about what’s going on in our oceans.

Striped dolphins have been spotted around Spanish waters. Image via marine-life.org.uk

How many people work for MARINElife?

We have a couple of staff members including a development manager which is a full-time position and a director of research,  data manager and survey manager, all part-time. The rest of organisation is run through a large group of volunteers and supporters. In terms of volunteer research surveyors, there’s probably in the region of 180 volunteers on the books. On top of that, we have a lot of other supporters who don’t necessarily go out and collect data but may process it for us or help out in local events. We also involve members of the public, for example, we have a number of boat operators recording sightings in core areas, like The Channel and also off the Northumberland and Yorkshire coastlines.

How do you get involved with MARINElife?

Initially I’d encountered marine wildlife whilst on holidays in far flung destinations. I came back from a hoiday in Australia and couldn’t wait for my next holiday to become involved with whales and dolphins again. I wondered whether there were opportunities closer to home to encounter these animals so I searched on the internet, found out about the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme and how good the Bay of Biscay is for encountering whales, dolphins and porpoises. I’m originally from Portsmouth so I knew about the P&O ferry that went from Portsmouth to Bilbao but I’d never been on it and never realised you could see such a diversity of marine animals so close to UK shores. Went on ferry and offered my help to wildlife officers.

Why do you, as an organisation, think marine conservation is so important?

There is so little known about the marine environment, we know so much more about what is going on on the land. There’s not much in terms of on a regular basis outside of voluntary organisations. Often the government are relying on large funded programmes which operate on a relatively infrequent basis, perhaps every five to ten years, and there’s not much that goes on between those snapshots. We believe its our job to fill in those gaps and understand whether populations are stable whether they are increasing or decreasing and which areas are important and need to be protected.

Sightings of Minke whales have been recorded around Poole, Dorset. Image via marine-life.org.uk

What have your findings shown?

It’s difficult to be definitive as you need quite a significant data set. That’s what’s  good about ferry work,  you can collect data month in month out. What we do seem to see is changes in the distribution of animals. Animals that were once in one area don’t seem to be found there now. They may not have disappeared, they may have moved area and it’s possible they may move back. The key thing  we want to make sure of is that ferry coverage is as wide as possible. That way, we can make much better predictions about what’s going on.

What is an example of a project MARINElife are currently working on?

Well, from a small boat perspective  we are focusing on Lyme Bay in Dorset. This is a  good area for spotting white-beaked dolphins. They tend to be found in cold water and are under significant pressure. There have been changes in distribution of this creature, however, there’s a relatively stable population at Lyme Bay. We’ve been carrying out photo identification work and are hoping to extend this research into the North Sea.

As a voluntary organisation MARINElife are always searching for new volunteers. If you are interested in marine conservation and would like to volunteer for MARINElife visit:  www.marine-life.org.uk


Studland seahorses fight for survival

It is a little known fact that seahorses are indigenous to the British Isles. There are in fact two species currently inhabiting the coast of the islands, the Spiny and Short-snouted seahorse. But a recent study has indicated a dramatic decline in number of the tiny creatures. But why should we be worried? We spoke to Neil Garrick-Maidment, Managing Director of The Seahorse Trust, to find out.

Spiny seahorses are native to UK waters and were first found at Studland in 2004. Image via Neil Garrick-Maidment

Studland Bay, Dorset has the highest concentration of seahorses found along the coasts of Britain and is currently the only existing natural breeding site for seahorses in the UK. This offers marine-biologists, divers and conservationists the perfect opportunity to research and observe them in their native habitat. But as of late, findings have not been positive. The number of Spiny seahorses discovered in the area has declined significantly, indicating Britain’s shores are currently in bad condition. The Seahorse Trust, Britain’s only seahorse charity consisting of around 500 volunteers, found only 11 Spiny seahorses at Studland Bay by the end of 2011. This was an unusually low number, as previous years have seen up to 40 seahorses in the area at one time. But what is the reason for the sudden deterioration?

Executive director, Neil Garrick-Maidment said, ‘seahorses are one of those iconic species that actually, if they’re not there, something is seriously wrong with the environment. They are a good indicator species to show what’s actually going on.’

‘I think it’s a culmination of a slow build up in temperature and a lack of plankton in the food cycle which has kept numbers down.’

The way in which divers are able to calculate the number of seahorses at Studland is thanks to a unique tagging project set up by The Seahorse Trust. In order for volunteers to understand and learn to recognise individuals, as well as monitor what’s going on below sea level, seahorses have tiny tags placed around their neck. Seahorses above the length of 13cm, from the top of head to the tail, are given a tag, which provides an exact GPS location allowing the trust to monitor the seahorse whilst in shallow waters. Identifying individual creatures allows the trust to see who is partnering who, where they are moving to and whether specific pairs stay faithful. As well as tagging they use a photographic identification programme in which profile shots are taken in order to compare changes in an individual.

It's the male seahorse who gets pregnant and gives birth. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Seahorses were first discovered at Studland Bay in 2004 by scuba diver and Marine Awareness Officer for Dorset Wildlife TrustJulie Hatcher. She said, ‘I heard not many were found this year, but there could be lots of reasons for that. I’m sure that, just like on land, a hard winter like we had last year could have a big impact on local populations. ’

During early spring seahorses migrate up from deeper water to shallow water for more sunlight, more habitat to live in and consequently more food. In the winter of 2010 going into 2011 there was a particularly long, prolonged period of coldness. With a lack of bright, sunny days there was nothing to promote a stable plankton cycle and in turn there was a lack of food for the seahorses to eat.

Neil said, ‘plankton are a building block of life. Without plankton you don’t get the shrimp feeding on the plankton and then the seahorse feeding on the shrimp.’

Seahorses are a vital food source for many fish, including tuna. If seahorse numbers are declining, so is this food source. Although tiny, seahorses still play an important role in the make-up of the marine life cycle. But lack of plankton may not be the sole reason this number has dwindled.

The natural habitat for Spiny seahorses is sea grass meadows, as it allows them to be close to the surface of the water and receive more sunlight. The UK has o.o1% of the world’s sea grass and as Neil explained, ‘it is disappearing at an alarming rate.’ Large sea grass beds exist along many of Britain’s coastlines but they are under major threat due to over fertilization of farms plus development and general run off from the land.

But, in Studland’s case the main issue is caused by the sheer amount of boats docking at the site. In any one day during the summer period, Studland Bay can encounter up to 350 boats. As it is the only sheltered refuge available between Weymouth and the Solent, Studland is a prime spot to dock, but the constant mooring of boats and dropping of anchors damages the seahorses’ natural habitat.

Listen below to hear Neil describe the extent of the boats’ damage:

‘[Studland] looks like a marine car park. If you have that quantity of boats using such a sensitive site then you run into problems’, said Neil. In the past, The Seahorse Trust have been accused of not wanting boats to moor at Studland but in fact they aim to find a compromise. Neil has put the suggestion of environmentally friendly moorings forward to the government. ‘These moorings would in one foul swoop stop all the problems that are occurring at Studland, so this is what The [Seahorse] Trust has been pushing forward from day one.’ They screw into the seabed and rise and fall with the tide without damaging vegetation. They are used in other parts of the world such as France and Florida but are known to be expensive.

Andrew Purkis, Chairman of Studland Parish council and member of the Seahorse Committee disagrees that it is the boats which are a problem. He said, ‘it’s only since [The Seahorse Trust] have been diving down interfering with their habitat and actually tagging seahorses that they’ve decided to go somewhere else. All the Studland residents want to do is leave things as they are, there’s nothing wrong with the way Studland operates and what we are fighting is unnecessary regulations on how we use our bay.’

‘Everyman and his dog comes down in the summer trying to find them. Whereas they lived quietly before, now they are being poked and prodded by every Tom, Dick and Harry.’

Tags are placed around a seahorses neck in order to identify them individually. Image via Neil Garrick-Maidment

But along with the seahorses’ survival being threatened, the future of The Seahorse Trust is in conflict. ‘The sad problem with all charitable trusts is we are all under threat because of this economic climate’, Neil explained. In order to continue they have come up with different ways to keep going. Recently the charity has started to branch their studies further into Europe and have set up a seahorse eco-tourism project in Malta. ‘It’s important to understand seahorses across their whole geographic range. The two British species also occupy the Mediterranean and Black Sea so we are going to be starting up this new project.’

Run by two volunteers, the project will start with the collection of historic data of the island and will continue to focus on specific diving sites. This will allow The Seahorse Trust to locate where the population are and then ultimately tag them in the same way as they are doing in the British Isles. Neil said, ‘[The Seahorse Trust] are hoping to work with diving associations and Malta University. I grew up in Malta so I’m going back to my roots, where I first had an interest in marine life.’ The project will allow students to learn how to survey and tag seahorses in order to build up database of the Maltese herd, mirroring the work already occurring in the British Isles. If the project is a success The Seahorse Trust are looking to expand their research into further countries.

Click here for a map showing the main Spiny seahorse sites around the British Isles.

Breeding programme to save wild seahorses at SEALIFE London Aquarium

Everyday, wild seahorses are taken from the ocean for the pet industry, chinese medicine trade and of course aquariums around the world. SEA LIFE are pioneers in the field of seahorse breeding and their scheme means they are able to bring new seahorses into the world whilst at the same time, leaving the seahorses in the wild alone. SEA LIFE have successfully bred and reared nine different species to in a bid to stop this delicate sea creature facing extinction.

Government delay plans to introduce MCZs

The government have withdrawn their decision to confirm the introduction of Marine Conservation Zones, around the coastline of the UK, early next year. Plans to protect certain areas of the ocean, in order to give marine life a safer environment to live, were set to be designated at the beginning of 2012. These plans have now been postponed until at least 2013.

Insufficient evidence was provided by stakeholder groups according to Defra, the government department for environment, food and rural affairs. Defra Environment Minister Richard Benyon said, “it is vital that we have an adequate evidence base for every site if we are to create successful well-managed MCZ’s.” He continued, “the need to strengthen the evidence base for the MCZ recommendations means this is going to take longer than the ambitious target first put forward.”

Map showing Marine Conservation Zones originally planned for 2012. Image via Julie Hatcher

One of the proposed sites around the coast of the UK is Studland Bay, Dorset. Julie Hatcher, Marine Conservation Officer for the Dorset Wildlife Trust explained, “originally the government said [the lack of evidence] shouldn’t delay the process because we need to have these areas in place as soon as possible. They said the best available evidence was good enough. Now for some reason they’ve gone against that.” Below she explains more:

Studland is thriving with marine life and is home to the two species of seahorse, Spiny and Short-Snouted. Since 2008 these seahorse have been legally protected by the government under the Wildlife and Countryside Act when there were added to a list of species protected by law. The seahorse is one of the very few marine species on this list after much concern that they needed protection. Julie explained, “the statutory authorities are already looking at putting management in place to make sure seahorses and their habitat aren’t being damaged. That’s going ahead anyway, whether or not the MCZ goes forward.”

Spiny seahorse which gained legal protection in 2008. Image via Dorset Wildlife Trust

Although the seahorses of Studland have protection, the rest of the marine life in the area, including the endangered Undulate ray, and around the UK do not. Studland Bay has sufficient evidence to support how sensitive the area is for wildlife but many areas’ data collection is not as solid. This has delayed Defra’s plan to confirm designation of sites, however there has not yet been a definitive answer as to how much data is sufficient.

Julie Hatcher explains below why Marine Conservation Zones, in her opinion, are so important.