Seahorses disappear from “undesignated” MCZ at Studland Bay, Dorset

The Western Morning News reports, 13th October 2014: “Seahorses have disappeared from breeding grounds at a popular beauty spot in Dorset. Numbers of the native spiny seahorse and short snouted seahorses have dwindled from more than 40 to none in the past eight years. This year, conservationists were devastated to find just one drifting juvenile male during this year’s dive surveys.

Neil Garrick-Maidment, executive director of The Seahorse Trust, based in Topsham, said: “It is completely disheartening, particularly as we have been warning that this has been coming for several years. “This does not bode well for the future of the seahorses at Studland unless the site is designated as a Marine Conservation Zone and only people power will make that happen.”

The area has now been recommended to become a Marine Conservation Zone after earlier being dropped as a potential site in 2012. A decision is likely to be known early next year.

Spiny seahorse

Spiny seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) has disappeared from Studland Bay, Dorset.
Picture copyright The Seahorse Trust

Mr Garrick-Maidment said that the Trust believes that the decline in seahorse numbers is due to the fragmentation of the seagrass habitat caused by excessive boat anchors and illegal moorings, which leads to a breakdown in the ecology of the area. He said: “I have counted more than 350 boats moored up there in one day. When the anchors are lifted it pulls up the grass which causes fragmentation and a slow break down of the seagrass meadow. That is bad for the marine life but also for the beaches and cliffs as it diffuses the waves and hinders the erosion.”

He insisted that Studland Bay should be open to all users, including boat users, and called for environmentally friendly moorings to avoid habitat disturbance. “Seahorses are among the highest protected species in the country and it is illegal to disturb them and their habitat.”

The Seahorse Trust have been carrying out licensed seahorse tagging at Studland since 2007 and plot the species distribution through the British Seahorse Survey which began in 1994. Through the tagging scheme have been able to identify individual species, which can live for up to 12 years, and have seen a decline in numbers to 11 in 2011 and 9 in 2012.

Seahorses head out to deeper water in the winter months and return to shallow areas to breed and feed among the seagrass as the weather warms. Survey findings have challenged traditional ideas about the species including evidence that seahorses breed in conjunction with phases of the moon to make use of high tides and that couples undertake seasonal rather than lifetime pairing.

Mr Garrick-Maidment said: “It is an important site for us because it has allowed us to learn a lot from individual seahorses. “I truly hope things will change and some seahorses reappear next year. All the other sites either side and around the country have had seahorses this year, no different to normal years and even if they do we desperately need to make sure the site is protected.” The Trust, Dorset Wildlife Trust and the Royal Yachting Association have produced a leaflet to promote responsible mooring in ecologically sensitive areas.

Gus Lewis, Royal Yachting Association (RYA) head of legal and government affairs said the RYA generally supported MCZs but said there was ‘no evidence’ that the Studland Bay seahorse decline was due to moorings.He said: “We are supportive of MCZs because we want to go boating in a healthy environment. The Seahorse Trust has a view on the impact that recreational boats has on the seagrass habitat. We take a different view and say the evidence is inconclusive. Anchoring does cause damage to a small part of the seagrass but there is a lot of seagrass and it appears to be thriving. “We think there are other factors like water quality and temperature that have to be taken into consideration. There has been a decline but why, nobody knows. The Seahorse Trust has a view but it is not based on any evidence,” he said.

He said that the RYA would continue to be involved in the MCZ process and consider more environmentally friendly moorings if technology developed. “We want to ensure as far as possible that recreational boating and the seahorses and their habitat can co-exist.”

Source: The Western Morning News, 13th october 2013. For the full story, see www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Seahorses-disappear-Studland-Bay/story-23087722-detail/story.html

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