Troubled Waters

From the ‘Big Issue in the North’ 27th July ’09

Basking Shark


Sea Change

The seas off northern coasts ought to teem with life, from seals to lobsters to planktonplankton Plankton is a generic term for a wide variety of the smallest yet most important organisms form that drift in our oceans. They can exist in larger forms of more than 20cm as the larval forms of jellyfish, squid, starfish, sea urchins, etc. and can be algae, bacterial or even viral down to as small as 0.2µm. They are nutrient and light dependent, and form the essential foodchain baseline for larger dependent aquatic lifeforms. Fish species rely on the density and distribution of zooplankton to coincide with first-feeding larvae for good survival of their larvae, which can otherwise starve. Man-made impacts such as dredging, dams on rivers, waste dumping, etc can severely affect zooplankton density and distribution, which can in turn strongly affect larval survival and thus breeding success and stock strength of fish species and the entire ecosystem. They also form the essential basis of CO2 take up in our seas ecosystem, hence Global Warming.. But divers report species getting smaller and fewer as over-fishing, pollution and climate change take their toll. Sarah Roe asks whether a conservation bill going through Parliament will make a difference.

Jewel AnemonesIt is difficult to imagine that just a few miles away from Newcastle city centre, beneath the freezing black waters of the North Sea, there is an expansive rocky reef that stretches 20 miles offshore and 100 miles along the coast of Northumberland up to the Scottish border. Blue wolf fish skulk amongst a rich array of marine wildlife, from delicate pink sea anemones, to sea urchins, lobsters, wrasse and crab. Around the Farne Islands, fish like conger eels and pouting lurk in thick kelp forests, while thousands of grey seals dive off the rocks and play with the occasional curious diver.

The richness of Britain’s varied marine wildlife is often forgotten in favour of their more visible land cousins, but this other world of underwater forests, lost villages, valleys and caves is as vibrant and diverse as that above water, and the seas of northern England are no exception.

Off the North West coast there are beautiful sea pens — delicate, plant-like creatures in the shape of a Shakespearean quill. They can grow up to 60cm tall and produce a shimmering blue-green light show to scare off predators. There are dolphins, porpoises and sharks, and just at the entrance to Morecambe Bay lies the Lune Deep, a sinister pit gouged out by a glacier in the Ice Age.

Film crews with sophisticated underwater cameras have managed to capture the beauty of this unseen territory in our seas and brought back wonderful tales of swimming through plentiful shoalsshoal A sandbank or sandbar that makes the water shallow of fish, playing with seals, dolphins and porpoises. But in the last decade the strains of mass fishing, pollution and climate change have taken their toll and something has gone badly wrong in this magical garden.

Environmental consultant Nick Robertson-Brown, of Orca Divers in Manchester, says: “Even in the last five years or so you sense there is less and less marine wildlife. Sharks are very quickly being wiped out. Recently we saw a dogfish with a huge hook through its mouth. We’re continually disappointed that everything is getting smaller. Yes, there are fish out there, there are lobsters there, but they are nowhere near as big as they should be.”

Abi Herron, a diver and campaigner with Friends of the Earth Manchester, was struck by the declining abundance of species in the last few years when she tried to find photographs of marine wildlife.

“I wanted to get some photos of wildlife showing swarms of fish and sharks, but they just weren’t there. The ones I could find were from the late 1990s.”

According to the recent Living Seas report by the Wildlife Trusts, basking sharks have declined by 95 per cent and the once ubiquitous common skate is on the verge of extinction. Dolphins, whales and seals have all suffered in recent years and fish stocks have collapsed. “The marine environment — our life support system — is on its knees,” the report states.

Natural England, the government body responsible for advice on nature conservation, confirms this view. It says at least 70 per cent of UK fish stocks have declined in reproductive capacity. In 1998, UK vessels landed £137 million of cod and haddock but this fell to just £70 million in 2002.

Over-fishing is a significant part of this decline but pollution, development, and, increasingly, climate change are also taking their toll. Kirsten Smith, marine policy officer for the North Sea at English Wildlife Trusts said: “There are changes in sea surface temperatures affecting the distribution and type of plankton species found within the North Sea, which then has a knock-on effect on what can feed on it.”

Some fish such as snake pipefish are increasing, but there are reductions in sand eels, with a knock-on effect up the food webfood web The totality of interacting food chains in an ecological community, leaving many seabirds unable to digest the larger pipefish.

The Marine and Coastal Access Bill, currently going through parliament, aims to tackle these problems with a new network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZsMCZ Marine Conservation Zone) to restrict fishing, fish farming and other damaging activities for marine wildlife, to give the seas some breathing space and a chance to recover. It is not a new idea — European Marine Sites, areas that are part of the recently expanded European conservation network Natura 2000Natura 2000 A European network of protected sites developed to maintain or restore natural habitats and species of wild flora and fauna to favourable conservation status within the European Union. were expected to help achieve this goal, but in reality protection is extremely limited and in most areas fishing and other activity damaging to wildlife continues.

Cuckoo Wrass“Environmental protection has existed on land for nearly 60 years but England’s seas have been left almost completely undefended,” warned Helen Philips, chief executive of Natural England, when the bill was first proposed in the Queen’s Speech in December last year. “The result has been a severe loss of marine life and extensive damage to marine ecosystems.”

In England, only the seas around Lundy Island, in Devon, are subject to any statutory measure with teeth. This is one of three Marine Nature Reserves in Britain — the others are off Wales and Northern Ireland — and is a European site with strict protection measures, including a no-take zone for any marine life. The results speak for themselves.

“One of my staff went diving off Lundy Island recently and it just blew them away,” says Robertson- Brown. “There were lobsters the size of an armspan, whereas in most cases they are the size of a handspan. It’s just not rocket science. If you’ve got a marine reserve where young fish can grow before they can go out into the wider sea then fish stocks will recover but with uncontrolled fishing the situation will just get worse.”

OctopusEnvironmentalists agree that if the marine conservation network is to have any success this time restrictions on the fishing industry must be properly enforced and zones created in areas where marine wildlife has a realistic chance of recovery.

Four regional projects, including one for the North Sea and another for the Irish Sea, are to recommend potential MCZs. Under the new bill, sites will be selected to protect not just the rare and the threatened but the range of marine wildlife. Unlike previously protected areas, social and economic factors may also be taken into account when identifying new sites.

StarfishLancashire Wildlife Trust has suggested a number of potential MCZs. Amongst the suggestions in the report Marine Reserves: TLC For Our Seas And Sea Life, is the Menai Strait, a strip of water that lies between North Wales and the island of Anglesey. More than 500 species of plants and animals have been recorded in one five-metre square patch. While the area is a European Marine Site, protection remains limited and there are still several threats to wildlife, including urban growth, shellfish culture and harvesting and bait digging.

Herron has firsthand experience of how marine wildlife has declined near Anglesey. “The waters around Anglesey are very rich in biodiversitybiodiversity Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals. and you used to find a lot of dogfish there but you just don’t see them any more.”

Other potential zones the trust highlights as areas of rich marine wildlife that could recover if left undisturbed are Shell Flat near Liverpool, the Easington-Dimlington Reef on the east coast and the Solway Firth.

DogfishHerron is heading a campaign by Friends of the Earth Manchester, as part of a consortium of environmental NGOs called the MARINET Group, to designate 30 per cent of all UK waters as Marine Conservation Zones. They believe the target, which is based on a survey carried out by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, would give the Marine Bill extra strength to protect wildlife.

Sufficient conservation zones placed in strategic interlinking areas would “help create corridors of protection so fish could travel around and are not just in isolation”, says Herron, as protected sites on their own are of limited benefit in open seas where shoals constantly move around.

The group already has support for the idea from many MPs.

The Marine Bill is expected to be passed later in the year. Its effects have the potential to breathe new life and new economic opportunities into northern marine wildlife areas such as those around Anglesey and off the east coast. According to Herron, there’s not much time left. “In 10 years we’re not going to have any choice of fish as fish stocks are at collapse point.”


Common Skate

A bottom-dwelling species that can grow to over two metres in length and live for 50 years, common skate populations are at crisis point. Native to shallow coastal waters across the north Atlantic, from Morocco to Iceland and Norway, they spend most of their life within a relatively small area, living on crustaceans and fish. Today they are deemed endangered — probably fished to extinction in the Irish Sea and extremely rare in the North Sea.

Spiny Dogfish

A cartilaginous fish and member of the most diverse part of the shark family, the spiny dogfish is regarded as critically endangered in Europe. A small migratory shark, it was also until recently one of the most common. According to WWF, stocks of reproductive females have declined by 95 per cent in the north east Atlantic and by 75 per cent in the northwest Atlantic — making them critically endangered.

Previously caught for their liver oil, spiny dogfish are now used for their meat. They can live to 70 and do not mature until they are 10-25 years old — an exceptionally slow growth rate which makes them particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation.

If the conservation network is to have any success, restrictions on fishing must be proper enforced

“In 10 years we’re not going to have any choice of fish as fish stocks are at collapse point”

With thanks to Big Issue for permission to publish this

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