Basking Sharks

Ever since moving to Cornwall, I’ve been itching to see a Basking Shark. I even fell over and hurt myself on the coast path once because I was concentrating more on hopefully gazing out to sea than on where my feet were going. Basking Sharks are in My Cornish Ark (see my earlier post), and deservedly so for such an amazing big fish.

basking sharks at porthcurno
Basking Sharks at Porthcurno (Photo: Candiche)

And now, at long last, I’ve seen one! And not from the top of the cliff, but from a boat, really close. I was with a group of students from Exeter University’s Cornwall Campus – they’d been working on an end-of-term project considering the challenges in balancing growth and conservation – and we were all really excited, as none of us had seen one of these magnificent creatures ‘in the flesh’ before. At one point the shark was swimming slowly towards us giving us a clear view of its wide-open plankton-filtering mouth. Incredible!

A basking shark filter feeding.
A Basking Shark filter feeding (photo: Wikipedia)

Basking Sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) are the largest fish in the seas round our coastline, visiting us in spring and summer, and can reach up to 12 m in length. They might be big, but they are harmless, feeding as they do on plankton. They are also still somewhat mysterious, and we are only just beginning to understand their life history better. A protected species since the late 1990s, this would appear to have resulted in an increase in numbers compared to when they were hunted commercially for meat and oil in the twentieth century. Recent research confirms this, highlighting the seas of the South West coast of Britain as one of three Basking Shark ‘hotspots’.

Taking a wildlife boat trip out of either Penzance or Falmouth will give you a reasonable chance of seeing one at the right time of year. I took my trip with AK Wildlife Cruises from Falmouth Docks – you can follow them on Facebook for lots of information on sightings and comments from the knowledgeable team.

You can find out more about Basking Shark biology and conservation from The Shark Trust or the Marine Conservation Society. But do get on a boat and go looking!

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Protecting our Cornish seas – things we can do

In my last post, I talked about the two species of seahorses – Short-snouted and Spiny seahorses – we can find around our shores, including here in Cornwall. This cryptic creature is hard to find, but I like to think of it, nestling among the seagrass and seaweed in its salty water world, safe from human disturbance in a world set apart from the hustle and bustle of life on land.

Polly Joke beach (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Polly Joke beach (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

If only that were true.  The reach of us humans has extended everywhere across this globe, from the upper levels of the atmosphere to the bottom of the oceans in far-flung places. So, it has certainly reached our local seas. Seahorses, as fish highly sensitive to environmental disturbance and change, are a good ‘barometer’ of wider adverse impacts. Dredging and anchorages, when not managed sensitively, can destroy the seagrass beds and other habitats they rely on; and, like many mobile sea creatures, and in the same way as we are seeing on the crowded land, they suffer from a loss of connectivity between habitats and breeding sites.

Coverack harbour (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Coverack harbour (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

Cornwall is a maritime county. Cornish people work on the sea, enjoy surfing on it, walking along the strand or cliffs, swimming in the water (in summer!), spotting basking sharks and dolphins, rockpooling, and much much more. We need to protect our seas – they are part of our heritage, livelihoods and culture – but it’s not all serious: there are plenty of things that are fun to get involved with, but which also help in preserving our shores and seas.  Here are a few to think about.

1. Cornwall Wildlife Trust organises lots of different activities under its Living Seas banner: click here to link to their site for more information. You can, for example (and these are just a taster):

  •  Become a ‘Your Shore‘ volunteer – working with a great bunch of people in partnership with CWT and your local VMCA (Voluntary Marine Conservation Area)
English: Basking Shark Dursey Sound
Basking Shark (Photo credit: Wikipedia) 
  • Get trained and help in recording marine sightings, and get involved in some fun events with Seaquest SouthWest. (I’m hoping to spot my first basking shark this year!)
  • If you’re a recreational diver, trained to a level of BSAC Sports Diver or PADI Rescue Diver, then you could get involved in Seasearch, and help in marine surveys.
  • Go rock pooling! CWT are organising a half-term rockpool ramble at West Looe on 16 February at 2pm. Check out their other events for some great and informative days out.

2. You could join The Seahorse Trust. You can adopt a seahorse though the Trust, as well. Have a look at their great website for lots of information about seahorses and the threats they are facing. It is both packed with facts and links to survey and scientific work as well as great photos.

3. Are you a surfer? Surfers Against Sewage is a national charity, but it started its life in Cornwall with a group of surfers and beach-lovers in St. Agnes and Porthtowan. They have plenty of ways to get involved: check out their Facebook page.

Surfing at St Ives (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Surfing at St Ives (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

4. Other local organisations, such as the RSPB and National Trust will have marine-related volunteering opportunities. You could become a Hayle Estuary Litter Picker with the RSPB – it may not sound immediately inviting! – but done in a crowd it can be great fun meeting like-minded people and doing your bit to keep beaches clean for wildlife and us to enjoy.

5. You could resolve to learn about a particular marine species, or group of species. I really enjoyed learning more about seahorses – basking sharks are next on my list! Then join or help out an organisation that campaigns for them, such as The Seahorse Trust, or Marine Conservation Society.

6. Make sure you only eat responsibly and sustainably sourced fish – this supports local fishing businesses, as well as being ethical and tastier.

7. Respond to the DEFRA consultation on Marine Conservation Zones (check out my post from a few weeks ago – and here’s the link again). There are lots of different people and interests involved, and it is very important the outcome is sustainable for the local economy as well as wildlife, so the solutions are not straightforward. Many nature organisations are however disappointed with the Government’s position and, whatever your views, the consultation is a good opportunity to make them known. Or write to your MP.

Well, that’s a few ideas, and there will be lots I have missed out. If you have any ideas you’d like to share, please leave a comment here or on the What’s Wild in Cornwall Facebook page, and spread the word!

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Marine Conservation Zones: the picture for Cornwall

Yesterday, DEFRA published its consultation document on the Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) it proposes to designate in 2013 under the UK’s Marine and Coastal Access Act.  The proposals have caused an angry reaction from conservation organisations – including the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Marine Conservation Society – because, of the 127 sites recommended, only 31 are being put forward for designation in 2013. Others could be put forward in future years, but there is no clear commitment to do so, and the question being asked is ‘Why the delay?’: of the 59 of the recommended sites considered to be at the most risk, under half are being proposed for designation in 2013.

There has already been extensive consultation for over a year with local communities on the impact of MCZs – recommended MCZs in the South West were reported in 2011, following consultation under the ‘Finding Sanctuary‘ project, which considered socio-economic as well as environmental impacts –  and there is no obvious reason why DEFRA shouldn’t now be consulting on the lot. Each site was proposed on the basis it contains important and/or endangered habitats and supports species we need to protect.

What does this mean for Cornwall? What is in and out for 2013? Well, it takes a bit of ploughing through the unwieldy consultation document and annexes on the DEFRA site, but I’ve managed it (have a go here if you like!), with plenty of help from the much more accessible Wildlife Trusts‘ pages.

The South West as a whole has proportionally done a little better than other regions. Of the 45 sites recommended, 15 of these are now being proposed for designation in 2013 (so one-third compared to the one-quarter nationally). These are:

Deeper sea zones: East of Haig Fras, South West Deeps, The Canyons

Cornish coastal zones: Padstow Bay and Surrounds, The Manacles, Upper Fowey and Pont Pill, Whitsand and Looe Bay, Tamar Estuary sites

Isles of Scilly: Isles of Scilly Sites

Other South West coastal sites: Lundy (already designated), Skeeries Bank and Surround, Torbay, Chesil Beach and Stennis Ledges, South Dorset, Poole Rocks.

These are all incredibly valuable sites, and great that they’re in for the current consultation. But which of the other original recommendations for Cornwall are missing? Here’s a few examples, with thanks to the Wildlife Trusts‘ webpages for the information.

Land’s End is out – one of the best UK areas for the critically endangered balearic shearwater.

Fura-bucho do Mediterrâneo // Pardela das Bale...
Balearic Shearwater (Photo credit: jvverde)

Swanpool is out – the only known natural location in the UK for an endangered filter-feeding bryozoan – the trembling sea mat.

Mount’s Bay is out – with its rich population of dolphins, basking sharks, porpoises, as well as seagrass beds, stalked jellyfish and crayfish.

Newquay and the Gannel is out – there you’ll find the protected pink sea fan and European eels.

Pink sea fan
Pink sea fan (Photo credit: CameliaTWU)

Hartland Point to Tintagel is out – noted for porbeagle sharks, mussel beds and reef-building honeycomb worms.

English: Porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus)
English: Porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Via the Wildlife Trusts, you can sign up to befriend your local proposed Marine Conservation Zone – or all of them! They’ll then send you information and ideas on how to support the campaign to get all of them designated. Or on 26th February 2013, the Marine Conservation Society and Sealife are organising a march to Westminster to campaign for MCZs – register your interest in taking part here.

You can expect me to be returning to this topic as the consultation progresses.