2018 a bumper year for extraordinary marine sightings around UK

2018 a bumper year for extraordinary marine sightings around UK

Undersea landscape, Lundy - Alexander Mustard/2020Vision

The Wildlife Trusts' round-up of a year of fabulous marine sightings, conservation success stories and the triumphs of thousands of amazing volunteers.

The Wildlife Trusts’ first ever UK marine review of the year reveals some new discoveries, some surprising finds and offers a fascinating glimpse of the vast diversity of sea wildlife living around UK shores. Thousands of marine volunteers helped Wildlife Trusts survey the sea and coastline in 2018 to gather information and enable Trusts to monitor the health of the UK’s marine environment. Many of these people cleaned beaches of tonnes of rubbish.

Review highlights:

  • Conservation action helps rare marine wildlife to make a comeback: from extremely rare short-snouted seahorse and responsible fishing scheme, to crawfish, undulate rays, little terns, new seagrass bed charted and highest ever count of sanderlings
  • Bumper year for marine surveys and sightings, nudibranch (sea slugs), curled octopus and basking sharks in Wales
  • Mysterious sightings: boar fish, millions of marine animals stranded, Sowerby’s beaked whale and basking shark in Kent
  • Sewage spills, plastic pollution effects and magnificent beach cleans

Dr Lissa Batey, senior living seas officer at The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“This review of sightings and action from across the UK has given a glimpse, a mere taster, of the wonders of our marine wildlife – delightful species that everyone has the opportunity to encounter and learn more about. But it has also shown us the problems that remain and the challenges that our sea life faces. It’s not too late. We are already seeing recovery in some of our Marine Protected Areas, but we don’t yet have a fully functioning network of nature reserves at sea, where wildlife has the opportunity to thrive. That’s why we are looking forward to the third designation of Marine Conservation Zones in 2019 – with these we would have the potential to reverse current marine wildlife declines.”

Conservation action helps rare marine wildlife to make a comeback

Thanks to the Poole Harbour Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS) project, Dorset fishers are reporting their marine sightings. Local fishermen have been finding the extremely rare short-snouted seahorse off the Purbeck coast. Both the short-snouted seahorse and the spiny seahorse are native to Dorset. Seahorses face multiple threats from trawlers that scour the sea bed and from yacht anchors – so good management is essential to the survival of these legally protected creatures. While the short-snouted seahorse is found in rocky and gravelly areas, the spiny seahorse is more likely to be found in underwater meadows, hiding in seagrass. Dorset Wildlife Trust hopes Studland Bay which has a seahorse colony will be designated as a Marine Conservation Zone in 2019. Dorset Wildlife Trust helped introduce a world first in seafood labelling by working with local fishermen to demonstrate responsible standards whilst caring for the marine environment in Poole Harbour.  The double award of MSC & RFS is a global first for the Poole Harbour clam and cockle fishery. 

In Cornwall the spiny lobster, also known as the crawfish, is making a comeback from over-fishing in the late 1960s / early 1970s. It is doing so well now that divers and dive boat operators are being asked to take a pledge not to collect crawfish. Similarly, undulate rays seem to be thriving along parts of the south coast of the UK, though they are still listed as endangered because their numbers declined by up to 80% following over-exploitation.

One of the UK’s rarest breeding seabirds, the little tern, successfully bred at Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s South Walney Nature Reserve for the first time in 33 years. Their decline has largely been due to loss of nesting habitat and disturbance to nests from vehicles and recreational activities. Providing suitable habitat, free from disturbance is vital to help these birds recover. On the other side of the country, little terns nested on Tollesbury Wick nature reserve for the first time in ten years after targeted management by Essex Wildlife Trust.

Little tern chicks

Little tern chicks at South Walney NR ©Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Ulster Wildlife surveyed a newly discovered seagrass bed covering a vast 60,000 mon the floor of Glenarm Bay for the first time this summer. (Discovered in 2017.) Dave Wall of Ulster Wildlife says: “Seagrass beds are an important habitat for fish species such as juvenile flatfish, pipefish and gurnard, as well as a myriad of marine invertebrate species including spider crabs and stalked jellyfish. Ulster Wildlife would like to see statutory protection being put in place for this seagrass bed as it is currently not protected.”

The high-tide wader roost at Gibraltar Point is a spectacle that can involve over 100,000 birds. One of the key species during autumn migration is the sanderling. One of the key species during autumn migration is the sanderling. Despite concerns this spring that late snowfall in the Arctic would compromise breeding success, an unprecedented number of sanderlings – adult and juvenile – were back on the reserve in August with a peak roost count of 10,105, possibly the highest count ever recorded for sanderling in the UK. Kevin Wilson, Nature Reserve Warden for Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, says: “Gibraltar Point is one of the most important high tide roost sites where an extraordinary number of waders can retreat to whilst high tides cover the feeding grounds.”

Bumper year for marine surveys, nudibranchs (sea slugs), curled octopus and basking sharks

Shore surveys were conducted by individual Wildlife Trusts on beaches across the country in order to gather information and monitor Marine Protected Areas. A huge array of evocatively-named species were found – from the acorn barnacle, Baltic tellin, peppery furrow shells, moon jellyfish, by-the-wind-sailors and mason worm, to rockpool highlights such as the hedgehog sponge, a conger eel and baby cuttlefish. In Cornwall alone, over 3000 records of marine species were submitted including 16 species of marine mammals (including seals, dolphins and baleen whales.) In Sussex, for example, a total of 696 recordings made up of 178 individual taxa were recorded and 10 new species to the area were discovered including sea squirts, crabs and nudibranchs.

Sea slug (Edmundsella pedata)

Sea slug (Edmundsella pedata) in a shell ©Georgina Blow, Somerset Wildlife Trust

Several Wildlife Trusts have reported a bumper year for nudibranchs (sea slugs), both in numbers and diversity; the solar powered sea slug has proved to be a favourite among volunteers.

Solar powered sea slug ©Thomas Daguerre, Hydro Motion Media, for The Wildlife Trusts

This autumn has been a bumper year for curled octopus sightings by divers particularly in Falmouth Bay.

Curled octopus

Curled octopus ©Mike Etheredge, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Basking sharks were spotted in Welsh waters in Cardigan Bay for the first time in 3 years by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales’s Living Seas Team.

Basking shark

Basking shark ©Alex Mustard/2020VISION

Mysterious sightings: boar fish, millions of marine animals stranded, Sowerby’s beaked whale and basking shark in Kent

While it is sad to find animals dead on our shores, recording what is washed up provides us with a rare encounter with unusual species or gives us an indication of where change might be occurring. This year several rarely seen boar fish were found dead on beaches in south-west England. While there is no evidence this brightly coloured fish is in decline, it is sensitive to fishing pressure due to its small size and late age of maturity, usually living at depths of up to 700 metres in the east Atlantic.

In March, millions of marine animals washed up on beaches along the North Sea coast following a storm. Crabs, starfish, mussels, lobsters and much more were found washed up in Yorkshire and all the way south to Kent, ankle deep in places. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas team worked alongside local fisherman rescuing live lobsters, gathering them in buckets and taking them to tanks for release later that week. Bex Lynam, Marine Advocacy Officer for the North Sea Wildlife Trusts says: “Lobsters were one of the few species still alive on the Holderness coast. This area is very important for shellfish and we work alongside fisherman to promote sustainable fisheries and protect reproductive stocks. It’s worth trying to save them so that they can be put back into the sea and continue to breed.”

Mass stranding of marine life

Mass stranding of marine life ©Bex Lynam, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

A rarely seen Sowerby’s beaked whale stranded at Harrington, west Cumbria, in September; it probably live stranded then died shortly after. Dr Emily Baxter, senior marine conservation officer at Cumbria Wildlife Trust, says: “The whale is quite unusual because it’s a rare, deep-diving species that doesn’t usually visit the shallow waters of the Irish Sea.”

In mid-November, a juvenile basking shark washed up on Deal beach, in Kent. Basking sharks are not normally found in the eastern Channel, being more commonly found on the UK’s western coasts.

Sewage, plastic pollution and magnificent beach cleans

Unfortunately, 2018 has seen sewage spills and storm drain dumping have resulted in sanitary products and wet wipes appearing on UK beaches.

Plastic continues to be an enormous problem. On Alderney, for example, plastic is now present in almost 100% of gannet nests largely from fishing industry rope or line. This plastic mass continues to build up and it poses a significant risk to chicks and adults alike as they become entangled or end up eating it. We can only assume all seabirds are affected by plastic pollution.

Plastic build up in gannet nests

Plastic build up in gannet nests ©Alderney Wildlife Trust

Thousands of Wildlife Trust volunteers have done beach cleans – for example, volunteers from three Wildlife Trusts removed 28 tonnes of waste from beaches in Kent, Northumberland and Lincolnshire, while the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s self-service beach clean station has continued to take in a lot of rubbish this year.

Find out more about our marine conservation work here. Become a friend of Marine Conservation Zones here.

Great British Beach Clean, South Gare

Great British Beach Clean, South Gare ©Tees Valley Wildlife Trust


Further note:

Amount of Plastic debris collected during beach cleans – info from 10 of 46 Wildlife Trusts (ie the total figures will be more):

Isles of Scilly WT – 2 tonnes (400 bags)

Ulster Wildlife – 128 bags and 105 large items

Kent WT – 2892kg and 60 shopping trolleys from Medway estuary

Sussex WT – 11,552 pieces of litter (166.5kg)

Northumberland WT – 24.5 tonnes in 2207 bags

Cornwall WT – 570 bags

Welsh WT – 14.095 pieces of litter

North-West Wildlife Trusts (includes Cumbria, Lancashire & Cheshire Wildlife Trusts) – 3.5 tonnes


Some Wildlife Trusts told us about their amazing marine volunteers (ie the total figures will be higher)

Isles of Scilly WT – 366 volunteers helped with beach cleans

Ulster Wildlife – 30 volunteers

Kent WT – 330 volunteers in marine related activities

Sussex WT – 148 volunteers at beach cleans, 92 Shoresearch, 21 Seasearch

Northumberland WT – Logged over 10,000 hours of volunteering in the last year and a half and have engaged with up to 800 volunteers.

Cornwall WT – Over 1000 marine volunteers

Welsh WTs – 42 marine volunteers

North-West Wildlife Trusts (includes Cumbria, Lancashire & Cheshire Wildlife Trusts) – 900 volunteers in marine related projects

©Julie Hatcher, Dorset Wildlife Trust