Category Archives: Seasearch

Upper Fowey MCZ – what’s there and local opinion

While I was down in Cornwall for the seasearch fish ID course, I went to a public meeting at the Royal Fowey Yacht Club that had been arranged to discuss management of the Upper Fowey and Pont Pill MCZ.

Sailing Boats in Fowey Harbour
Sailing Boats in Fowey Harbour.
CC BY-SA Duncan Greenhill

First of all, a little background. Upper Fowey and Pont Mill MCZ is an unusual marine conservation zone. It’s the second smallest, at around two square kilometres, and despite its small size it’s split into two separate areas. The main part of the MCZ is the upper Fowey estuary and the second area is Pont Pill, which is a smaller estuary that joins the main estuary from the east a short distance inside the entrance to the open sea.

MCZs are designated based on the features (habitats or species) within them. For this particular MCZ, there are six features listed in the designation, and all are habitats. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) was included in the draft conservation objectives and there was a single record of a long-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus guttaluatus) recorded in the area covered by the MCZ, but the record dated back to the 1960s. Neither of these species were used as a basis for designation. There are areas of seagrass in the estuary but not within the boundaries of the Upper Fowey MCZ, which followed those of the voluntary marine conservation area (vMCA) that was there previously. It may be that there are species and habitats of conservation interest within the estuary, but not within the MCZ and so not currently protected. The six habitats are:

  • Coastal salt marshes and saline reedbeds, which are important habitats for birds and fish, producing a biodiversity ‘hotspot’, as well as providing natural coastal protection. This type of habitat is relatively rare in the south west.
  • Intertidal coarse sediment consists of pebbles, gravels and coarse sand, and is only found at a few scattered sites in the UK. The unstable nature of the sediment means that few animals can live here successfully, with sandhoppers being one of the exceptions.
  • Intertidal mud is what we normally think of when we think of estuaries – the typical mudflat that supports large populations of worms and bivalves.
  • Low energy intertidal rock are areas that are sheltered from wave action and subject to weak tidal currents, which means that seaweeds can flourish, providing shelter and protection and acting as nursery grounds for juvenile fish.
  • The fifth type of habitat is estuarine rocky habitat. Stable rock is rare within estuaries (because muds tend to dominate) and the rocky shore communities can differ quite substantially from those of normal coastlines because of the brackish water and sediment inflow from the rivers.
  • The final type of habitat is sheltered muddy gravels. These are found in areas that are not exposed to strong tidal streams or strong wave action, and the communities of animals found within them depends on the salinity. Fully marine examples of these habitats are scarce in the UK, but are found in both the areas that make up this MCZ. This habitat is important for diversity and is rich in species such as tubeworms, burrowing anemones and bivalves.

The last two habitats are the most important, and are listed as features of conservation importance (FOCI) for this site, which means that they are “rare, threatened or declining“.

Rob Seebold, who’s a marine adviser with Natural England and Sam Davies from Cornwall IFCA ran the meeting. Rob started with a presentation about MCZs highlighting that the aim for MCZs was to make the marine environment more resilient to change. Those involved in conservation often talk about ‘ecosystem goods and services’, for example, coastal areas provide us with ‘goods’ (fish and shellfish), but also services (intertidal mud protects against erosion by dispersing the energy of waves and currents). It’s the protection and sustainable use of these goods and services that enhances the resilience of the particular marine ecosystem.

There was some concern expressed by some in the audience that they would be prevented from pursuing activities they had always done because they area now had a level of legal protection that it had not had before, and whether people coming in from outside the area would ‘play by the rules’. While Rob couldn’t rule out any changes in future he did point out that the features in the MCZ were generally in good condition. The MCZ is regulated by a number of organisations, including IFCA, the Marine Management Organisation, Cornwall Council, the Environment Agency and the Fowey harbour commissioners. The next steps are that the regulators will look at whether further management is necessary and involve local stakeholders if that’s the case, but with the aim of managing features to a ‘favourable condition’ rather than extending the scope of protection. The regulators are also required to report on the status of the sites to DEFRA every six years.

Some of the concern at the meeting related to fishing issues, rather than the conservation zone itself, and Sam Davies from Cornwall IFCA responded to these as part of her presentation. An interesting point related to the bass fishery where the minimum size for landing in the Cornish area is 37.5cm (36cm in the EU), but as a member of the audience pointed out this is below the size at which they reproduce, and that locals were actually pushing for the limit to be raised to 45cm. IFCAs can set minimum sizes within their own areas so long as they are not below the statutory minimum.

It was my first time at a public meeting like this, and I was impressed. The concerns expressed were reasonable and entirely understandable in the local context, and I didn’t hear a single negative comment about marine conservation zones. And that’s important because protection doesn’t succeed through legislation, but because people protect what they value and connect with.

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It’s a fish – day two

Day two of the seasearch course started relatively early (for a Sunday). We met at Towan headland in Newquay by the old lifeboat station, and the car park started to fill with divers in various states of getting ready. Most of the course participants were diving, but three of us (including me) were snorkelling. We accessed the water down a natural rock ramp, which was much less steep than the old lifeboat slipway, and entered the water at 9.30, around two hours after local high water. As I was only wearing a summer 3mm wetsuit the cold shock was a little bracing and left me hyperventilating for a good twenty seconds, as well as giving me the start of a wonderful ‘ice-cream’ headache. Visibility was around 5m as we began to snorkel. We remained on the surface so as not to interfere with the divers surveying below us, which restricted us to observing what was in the water column or on the shallower rocks, and consequently saw mostly sand eels and spider crabs. We were joined by a female grey seal who kept us company for a while before disappearing to visit the divers. As we swam back to the exit point I could see the silhouette of the seal below me, just at the limit of visibility.

Grey Seal
Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus). CC BY-SA Duncan Greenhill

After coffee and biscuits, we moved across to the other side of Fistral beach as the tide continued to fall to meet Frances and the other participants for the rockpooling session. This was more productive for me personally, catching a large Shanny (Lipophrys pholis, and thanks to Fiona for spotting it), and later a long-spined Sea Scorpion (Taurulus bubalis). The Sea Scorpion was a complete surprise as I ran my hands through the unlikeliest looking crevice in the rock behind where we’d left our bags and found quite a sizeable fish at about 15cm long.

Shanny (Lipophyrys pholis)
Shanny (Lipophyrys pholis). CC BY-SA Duncan Greenhill
Long Spined Sea Scorpion
Long-spined Sea Scorpion (Taurulus bubalis). CC BY-SA Duncan Greenhill

As the tide started to come in we used a seine net to sample over the sand in the surf. It was hard work, and involved coordination so that the top and bottom ropes were hauled in at similar rates, and that the bottom rope was kept low to avoid all the specimens escaping underneath. We found a prawns and shrimps, a juvenile flatfish, and a number of Lesser Weaverfish (Echiichtyhys vipera), which questioned the wisdom of so many swimmers going into the water barefoot. The day ended with pasties on the beach.

Overall, it was a great weekend. I learned a lot, in good company, and hope to return next year to do the seasearch observer course.

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It’s a Fish – Day One

Seasearch is a project involving volunteer sports divers to record the habitats and marine life around the coast of the UK. I recently attended one of their training courses (Fish ID) in Newquay Cornwall. The course was organised by the Seasearch Organiser for Cornwall, Cat Wilding, who’s also the marine survey officer for Cornwall Wildlife Trust, and the tutor was Dr Frances Dipper.

The course was being held at Newquay College and after the usual introductions, the day started with a short presentation where Frances talked about some of the main groups and families and the general characteristics of fish that would be used to identify them. In the second presentation, we moved on the fundamentals – the FLEMMS system. The FLEMMS system is designed so that you can gather a lot of information for identification in what may be a relatively short glimpse as the fish disappears into a clump of weed. FLEMMS stands for:

  • Fins, specifically the unpaired fins. How many dorsal? How many ventral? Is the tail concave, convex or straight?
  • Lateral line. Is it visible in that particular species? If so, is it straight or curved?
  • Eyes. Where are they positioned? Are they large or small? Are they bulging?
  • Mouth. Where is it positioned? Is one of the lips prominent or are the lips equal? Are there any barbels?
  • Markings. Are there any distinctive patterns, colours or spots?
  • Size. Relate the size to something more general: is it finger, hand or arm size?

We then got to practise and started with the easy option – identifying fish from photographs, although as we progressed Frances would mimic the fish disappearing by changing the slides faster. We could either make quick notes about features or make a quick diagram. I chose the diagram method. It starts with a cross to represent the fish onto which we mark the fins, lateral line, eyes, mouth details, etc. The symbols aren’t standardised since it’s an aide to our memory for identification after returning to shore, rather than a reference for others, so we might use lines or shapes for fins.

FLEMMS diagram of a haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus)
FLEMMS diagram of a haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus)

This fish has three dorsal (the first prominent) and two ventral fins which, in UK waters, shows that it is a member of the cod family. There is a curved lateral line, the upper jaw extends below the lower jaw, which has a small barbel. There is a black marking just below the lateral line. The combination of the first dorsal fin and the black ‘thumbprint’ shows that this is a Haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus).

FLEMMS diagram of a Shanny (Lipophyrys pholis)
FLEMMS diagram of a Shanny (Lipophyrys pholis)

This is a fish with a long single dorsal fin and a single ventral fin. The tail is convex. The head is complex, with prominent bulging eyes, and thick lips with the upper lips horizontal and slightly protruding over the lower lips. The fish is around hand size with blotchy markings. The single dorsal fin and the lack of head tentacles identifies this as a Shanny (Lipophyrys pholis).

After lunch, we went to the Blue Reef Aquarium to practise on more mobile and less cooperative fish, which included blennies, gobies, wrasse, and skates and rays.

Tompot Blenny (Parablennius gattorugine)
Tompot Blenny (Parablennius gattorugine)
CC BY-SA Duncan Greenhill

We returned to the lab at Cornwall College and had another brief presentation on some of the difficulties and confusions we might face trying to identify fish such as fish keeping fins folded down (which causes us to miscount), and changes in colouration and pattern as the fish matures or changes sex. There was a perfect end to the day with a course meal looking out over the clifftop across Great Western Beach as the surf rolled in and we wondered about conditions for the following morning.

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