Thousands wade-in to protect UK seas – The Wildlife Trusts’ marine review 2019

Thousands wade-in to protect UK seas – The Wildlife Trusts’ marine review 2019

Tom Marshall

2019 has seen extraordinary sightings of minke whales and bottlenose dolphins in UK waters, restoration of vital saltmarshes and conservation action by thousands of marine and coastal volunteers.

The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Seas teams are the eyes and ears of the UK coast and have compiled their most memorable highlights – a marine review of the year.

 Good news

  • Highly successful new project recording minke whales and dolphins off the Yorkshire coast. Furthest south record of Scottish bottlenose dolphins
  • Seal discovered commuting between Isle of Man and Cornwall
  • Record year for grey seal colony at South Walney, Cumbria
  • Excellent year for Sandwich terns at Cemlyn Bay, Wales
  • Razorbill recovery on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scotland

Bad news

  • Kittiwake colony fails on Isles of Scilly, no chicks survived
  • Increasing incidents of disturbance to wildlife
  • Marine wildlife in peril from plastic, nurdles, litter and discarded fishing gear   

Changes in marine environment

  • Spread of non-native Pacific oyster as waters warm

Action for marine conservation

  • Saltmarshes restored – a natural solution to carbon storage
  • Seeds collected for new seagrass meadow
  • Endangered skate and sharks successfully tracked and monitored
  • Over 5000 marine volunteers got involved in citizen science and beach cleans
  • Fishing 4 Litter collects 27 tonnes of marine waste
  • Milestone: 41 new Marine Conservation Zones announced bringing total to 91

Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ director of living seas, says:

“2019 saw a sea-change in people’s attitudes. The extent of the nature and climate emergency is becoming increasingly clear and more people than ever are volunteering to be citizen scientists and conducting important surveys or taking action to tackle the profound problems of marine litter and plastic pollution. They’ve shown their commitment to healthy seas by supporting The Wildlife Trusts’ campaigns to ensure government policies create more and better protection for marine wildlife and waters around the UK.”

Good news: New project records whales and dolphins off Yorkshire, a commuting seal, and success for Sandwich terns, razorbills and grey seals

A new citizen science project recording sighting of whales, dolphins and porpoise off Yorkshire’s east coast had a highly successful first year: trained volunteers logged 320 individual sightings including minke whales, bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoise. A network of 30 volunteers trained by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Sea Watch Foundation became the ‘eyes and ears’ of the coast and spent over 330 hours surveying from 30 different locations. 

Photographs identified one pod of bottlenose dolphins and showed they’d journeyed from Scotland. The sighting off Flamborough Head was the furthest south they have been officially identified. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust researchers accompanied specialist wildlife boat trips logging minke whales feeding off Staithes.

Bex Lynam, North Sea Wildlife Trusts’ marine advocacy officer says:

“It’s likely the bottlenose dolphins came south following shoals of fish; it’s thrilling to see playful dolphins and ocean giants like whales. Ten years ago, seeing a bottlenose dolphin off the Yorkshire coast would have been rare. We need to collect more data about how and why they are using these waters if we are to better protect them. The role of citizen scientists in recording these animals, as well as changes in the marine environment is really important.”

Wildlife Trust evidence continues to reveal surprising glimpses into animal behaviour. This year for the first time, an individual seal was discovered commuting between the Isle of Man and Cornwall. Photographs sent by the Manx Wildlife Trust to the Cornwall Seal Group (Research Trust) revealed that the same seal, nicknamed Tulip Belle has been a regular visitor to the South West since 2001, returning to Calf of Man every couple of years to have her pups

Tulip the seal

Tulip the seal taken by Laura Howe, Manx Wildlife Trust

Lara Howe, Manx Wildlife Trust’s marine officer, says:

"This is a first for us. We knew that seals travel within the Irish Sea, but we had no idea that they would go as far as Cornwall. When I sent our Manx seal photos to the Cornwall Seal Group, it was a bit of a long shot and we were all surprised that we found a match. It shows that seals will swim great distances for food and a place to pup, highlighting the importance of a network of marine protected areas around the UK, so that wherever marine wildlife goes there are healthy seas to support them.” 

Cumbria Wildlife Trust reported more grey seals at South Walney nature reserve than ever before: 483 including 7 pups – up from 360 last year. Numbers have increased dramatically from only two in 1981 with the first pups being born in 2015.  

People don’t realise how vulnerable animals such as dolphins and seals are to human activity. We share the seas with nature and need to leave space for marine wildlife

Over 1000 pairs of Sandwich terns bred at North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Cemlyn Bay nature reserve this year and about 800 chicks fledged – a large increase on 2018 when there were 500 pairs and about 180 chicks. The birds nest in the open on silty or sandy islands, so they are vulnerable to predators and very sensitive to disturbance, especially from dogs and people. This nature reserve is the only Sandwich tern colony in Wales and one of the most important in the UK so receives special protection: an electric fence circles the nesting site, whilst wardens keep watch and patrol. The Trust is fundraising to continue this vital work.  Plans for a nuclear power station nearby, which could have devastating consequences for the birds’, have been deferred, with a decision expected about the next stage of the planning process early in 2020. Over a hundred of the Sandwich tern chicks were fitted with coloured leg rings for the first time this year in order to follow their migration. By early Autumn there were sightings of these young birds off the coasts of the Gambia and Namibia, a journey of over 11,000 km.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust celebrated a welcome boost for razorbills, seabirds which nest on the ledges of soaring sea cliffs on Handa Island. Rangers and volunteers counted birds by boat and on foot, results showing 8,207 birds, the highest number since 2006.  Although good news, Handa’s razorbills are still in trouble, having declined dramatically from over 16,000 birds in the early 2000s. The exact cause isn’t known, but the birds are sensitive to any change in local fish stocks and pollution.


Bad news: Isles of Scilly kittiwake nests fail, disturbance to marine wildlife, and yet more plastic pollution

Around 20 kittiwake nests were recorded this year on Gugh, Isles of Scilly, and chicks grew throughout June.  However, in July the nests started to fail, and chicks disappeared; during the last survey only a single chick remained. Kittiwakes across Scilly have been surveyed annually since 2006. Over this period dramatic declines have been recorded with an 87% drop in numbers. People disturbing birds, and harsh storms during the breeding season are among the suspected reasons for the failure of the Gugh colony, with trail cam footage revealing regular visits from peregrines, causing both kittiwakes and gulls to abandon their nests. 

Nikki Banfield, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust’s communications officer, says: 

“Scilly attracts many visitors because of its spectacular wildlife, but the pressure on the islands and their wildlife is high.  We try to balance the needs of visitors, whilst maintaining space for nature, unfortunately, not everyone understands how easily seabirds are disturbed. This year we have had to put up extra signage asking people to keep dogs on leads, after dog walkers disturbed seabirds. Despite restricting access to some of our most sensitive sites, and asking people to stick to the paths, birds can be scared into abandoning their nests.”

Several Trusts reported that wildlife is increasingly being disturbed by people. Trusts reported jet skis frightening dolphins, kayakers scaring seals, drones causing wildlife to flee and increased numbers of tripper boats operating from harbours.  The trauma can separate animal parents from their young and disrupt feeding or successful breeding. The last two years have seen the highest numbers of dolphin disturbances reported to Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Disturbance Hotline since monitoring began in 2013, with 16 dolphins, 8 each year, alarmed by leisure activities such as jet skiers.  Latest overall hotline figures (2018) show a total of 245 serious incidents involving marine wildlife, 234 of which involved seals. The hotline took the first call and co-ordinated action to tackle a particularly distressing incident in Falmouth in which dolphins were harassed by jet skiers (Feb 2019). In Yorkshire jet skiers scattered seabirds from their colonies, and in Essex seals were worried by recreational disturbance.  

Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ director of living seas, urges people to enjoy all that the coast offers but not at the expense of wildlife. She says:

“People don’t realise how vulnerable animals such as dolphins and seals are to human activity. We share the seas with nature and need to leave space for marine wildlife – it’s important that people keep a good distance from animals and seabirds and avoid kayaking, jet skiing or boating near to animals, and avoid mothers and their young.”

Plastics, ocean litter, and discarded fishing gear continue to devastate marine wildlife. A seal with a plastic ring around its neck was spotted by the Manx Wildlife Trust, which had six other reports of seals tangled in plastic or rope. Last month pictures of a seal pup chewing on a glass bottle at Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Donna Nook reserve were widely reported.  Essex Wildlife Trust highlighted the problem by commissioning a sculpture, Poly the seal and her pup Nurdle, made from washed up plastic and litter. Marine litter collected on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve (Scottish Wildlife Trust) has been traced back to the USA and Canada, Spain, Sweden and Ireland with lobster pot tags from Newfoundland, all showing the global scale of the problem. Last month hundreds of thousands of nurdles – tiny pieces of industrial plastic – washed-up and covered parts of Kimmeridge Bay, a specially protected part of Dorset’s coast.  About the size of a lentil, multi-coloured nurdles are eaten by wildlife, everything from birds to fish, who mistake them for food. Over the years, visitors and staff from Dorset Wildlife Trust have cleared the beach of thousands of nurdles and bio beads which are used in wastewater treatment.


Tracey Williams

Julie Hatcher, Dorset Wildlife Trust’s people and wildlife officer, says
“When the sea is rough on a winter’s day, nurdles are washed-up in astonishing numbers – it’s extremely disheartening and hard to imagine how we will ever get rid of them. They’re just one part of the ocean plastics nightmare.” 


Changes in the marine environment: Pacific oyster threat as waters warm

Warming seas have allowed a boom in numbers of non-native Pacific oysters, threatening to change ecosystems in important estuaries of the south west. Pacific oysters were introduced to the UK in the 1920s, and then commercial oyster farms were established in the 1950s and 1960s, it was believed that they wouldn’t breed because our waters were too cold. Recently, though, the oysters have spread beyond the farms and trained citizen scientists from Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Shoresearch Project, along with other partners, are mapping the oyster explosion. In Cornwall the Tamar, Fowey, Fal and Helford estuaries are now heavily inundated with Pacific oysters. Solid Pacific oyster reefs are forming in some areas which are changing the ecosystem and smothering intertidal gravel and mudflats, making it difficult for birds and young fish such as bass and mullet, to forage on these rich and important feeding grounds. Some areas have recorded up to 200 oysters per square metre.

Healthy seas are essential for wildlife and are also a key part of tackling climate change. Oceans are the largest sink for man-made carbon dioxide, and it’s estimated they absorb between 20% and 35% man-made CO2 each year


Matt Slater, marine awareness officer, Cornwall Wildlife Trust says:

“Originally, Pacific oyster famers were officially advised that our waters weren’t warm enough for them to reproduce, but due to climate change that advice is out of date.  Pacific oyster populations have increased hugely in Cornwall and Devon in the last five years and it’s unrealistic to think we’ll be able to eradicate this species, so we’re going to have to manage them the best we can. There are big feral populations on the coasts of Kent and Essex too. This is a cautionary tale, showing the unforeseen consequences of introducing new species, and particularly the effect a changing climate is having on marine ecosystems.”

Action for marine conservation: Seagrass & saltmarsh restoration – great for wildlife, good for carbon storage; endangered skate and sharks successfully tracked; native oyster reintroduction; over 5000 marine volunteers; Fishing 4 Litter cleans-up 27 tonnes of marine waste, and a milestone – 41 new Marine Conservation Zones announced

This year Alderney Wildlife Trust donated seeds from their underwater seagrass meadows at Longis nature reserve for an innovative project planting a new meadow off the Welsh coast. Seagrass stores about twice as much carbon per hectare as terrestrial soils. Alderney’s seagrass tolerates warmer waters and the Trust sustainably harvested seeds for Swansea University to germinate, before being transferred to small hessian bags to be planted underwater.  

UK saltmarsh has declined by 85% in the past 100 years and what is left needs emergency protection. Saltmarsh captures large amounts of carbon through photosynthesis, storing the carbon in its vegetation, and the deep sediment beneath the surface. Saltmarshes also protect coastal land against flooding as a result of storm surges. Essex Wildlife Trust notched up a number of firsts this year with successful surveys showing fish are now colonising an emerging area of saltmarsh at Fingringhoe Wick, created following a planned breach in the sea wall five years ago. A new expanse of channels, lagoons and marsh is already becoming an important place for fish, waders and wildfowl. The first winter fish survey found new species like thin lipped grey mullet are using the saltmarsh. At Abbots Hall Farm the first year of monitoring showed success for coir rolls installed by the Trust to protect the marsh, and for the first time citizen scientists trained by the Trust discovered numerous young fish including gobies, shrimp, bass, sea gooseberries, a small iridescent jellyfish at Two Tree Island saltmarsh.

 Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ director of living seas, says

“Healthy seas are essential for wildlife and are also a key part of tackling climate change. Oceans are the largest sink for man-made carbon dioxide, and it’s estimated they absorb between 20% and 35% man-made CO2 each year.  We need to protect and restore blue carbon habitats such as seagrass meadows and saltmarshes as one of our most effective and natural solutions to the climate emergency.” 

Ulster Wildlife reported a great year for the critically endangered common skate, (also known as flapper skate) which can live for up 100 years and grow to three metres long. Working with local sea anglers through the SeaDeep project, fish were tagged and monitored. 

Rebecca Hunter, Ulster Wildlife’s living seas manager, says:

“Skate grow very slowly so it can take decades for populations to recover. We offered sea anglers free training and equipment, showing them the best way to handle and tag fish with a unique number, at the same time as measuring them and giving a condition check, before quickly returning them to the water. Anglers also helped tag spurdog sharks which can live to 70 years and are endangered in Northern Ireland. Their enthusiasm for helping us save these species has been fantastic and over 200 sharks, skates and rays have been tagged so we can monitor numbers and condition.”

Native oysters were re-introduced to the Humber estuary for the first time since the 1950s. Working in partnership with University of Hull, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reintroduced the oysters in a sheltered area at Spurn Point nature reserve where students will be able to monitor growth, water quality, and marine wildlife. Oysters are nature’s water filters and help clean pollution from estuaries and seas.

This year coastal Wildlife Trusts were supported by over 5000 volunteers who took part in beach cleans, citizen science surveys and shore-based events.  Trained Shoresearch citizen scientists completed over 95 surveys recording marine creatures and submitting their data to national records centres. Many Wildlife Trusts volunteers stood up for their local coasts: Hampshire Wildlife Trust’s Secrets of the Solent had over 100 people signing up to train and become Marine Champions, while North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Wild Coast had its busiest year with young volunteers racking up an incredible 1,806 individual volunteer hours in the past 12 months – that’s around 2.5 months of continuous, non-stop work to help protect and promote safe havens for nature. Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Your Shore Beach Rangers inspired young people, Kent Wildlife Trust’s Guardians of the Deep contributed survey data, and Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s 660 students enjoyed Beach School. Devon Wildlife Trust’s Wembury Marine Centre celebrated its 25th anniversary with a 24-hour bioblitz – working with The Marine Biological Association 115 volunteers recorded 1310 species, (610 of which were newly recorded within 10km of Wembury Marine Centre) – all within 24 hours. Most exciting finds were two rare giant goby found during night-time rockpooling.

Legendary volunteer Ray Marsh won The Wildlife Trusts’ Cadbury Medal for services to nature conservation. Ray retired in October after 60 years as volunteer warden of Essex Wildlife Trust’s Skipper’s Island; he rowed across to the island 10,000 times to look after this haven and its wildlife.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Fishing 4 Litter had its best year with a phenomenal 27 tonnes of litter and fishing gear collected by fishermen and deposited in skips and waste points in eight harbours along the Yorkshire Coast.  This project offers 160 fishermen hard-wearing, reusable bags for use at sea which are then emptied ashore – bins and skips are collected by councils in North and East Yorkshire.

This year Wildlife Trusts organised 450 beach cleans, with many more independently-run by volunteers themselves and through local partnerships. Trusts counted rubbish by the bag, tonne and even piece, for example: Sussex Wildlife Trust logged 19,000 pieces of litter weighing 350kg; Scottish Wildlife Trust reached remote island beaches by boat, removing over 5 tonnes of washed-up litter, plastic and fishing gear; and Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust cleared 2.5 tonnes from their coastline. Plastic eye-drops bottles washed up in Hampshire and Devon, and plastic nozzles covered a beach in Kent.

After almost 298,000 people backed a 7-year campaign by The Wildlife Trusts to protect UK waters, 41 new Marine Conservation Zones were announced this year bringing the total to 91.  Citizen science provided the evidence needed to achieve this milestone and it will mean greater marine protection for special underwater places including cold water corals, forests of sea fans, rocky canyons and sandbanks – an astonishingly varied range of submerged landscapes and habitats which support the stunning diversity of marine life found in the UK.  

Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ director living seas, says:

“The announcement of new Marine Conservation Zones marked a watershed in our battle to protect our seas. We want this small corner of our blue planet to recover and our waters to teem with life once more. Now the government must introduce better management of MCZs and enhance protection for a selection of areas to show how seas can recover when damaging activities are removed.” 

In Scotland, proposals to create the world’s first protected area for basking sharks, in the Sea of the Hebrides, were supported by The Scottish Wildlife Trust, which encouraged more than 3000 people to back the plan. Basking sharks congregate to feed on plankton in Hebridean waters from May to October; numbers plummeted in the 1900s due to widespread global hunting.

Risso's dolphin

Risso's dolphin ©Eleanor Stone

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