Cornish seahorses

English: Pygmy Sea Horse on gorgonian fan.
Pygmy Seahorse on gorgonian fan: difficult to spot if you are a predator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine if you could create your own fantastical sea creature. Would you give it the ability to change colour enabling it to hide from its predators; the ability to look forwards and backwards at the same time; a prehensile tail to cling on to vegetation; a body covered in armoured plates; a long horse-like snout and the ability to grow and reabsorb spines? And would you make it so it was the male that gave birth to its young? Sounds too weird? Well, if you made a creature looking like that, then you would in fact have created a real-life animal – a seahorse.

Seahorses are an amazing fish. Not only have they evolved all of the above clever adaptations, but they are also strangely beautiful to look at with their stately and graceful swimming style. I have maybe been a bit cheeky with the title of this post as, thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, we can find them living, breeding and swimming around much more of the UK coastline.  But they are here in Cornwall and I’ve been enjoying finding out more about them. (I should say at the start that I owe a big thanks to Neil Garrick-Maidment, Director of The Seahorse Trust, and the Trust’s very informative web site, for information about seahorses in Cornwall, and permission to use photographs.)

Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus)
Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) (Photo credit: Jeff Whitlock)

There are two species of seahorse in UK waters: the Short-snouted Seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus, which secured a place on My Cornish Ark) and the Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatuswith a longer snout and spines on its head and the top of its back). Both need seabed vegetation in which they can hide and hunt, and this dictates to a large extent where they are found in Cornish waters. The more choosy Spiny Seahorses (very much restricted to seagrass habitats) are mainly found along our south coast where there are large seagrass meadows, with Penzance Bay hosting a reasonably-sized population (NB. a group of seahorses is called a ‘herd’!). Short-snouted Seahorses can live in a wider variety of vegetation and are therefore more generally distributed. Both species also live around the Isles of Scilly. Even divers would be very lucky to see them, though – they are secretive and cryptic, most often seen when brought up accidentally by crab and lobster fishing.

Despite the few differences between them, our two native seahorses have a similar life history. Here are a few things I found out, but do get onto The Seahorse Trust website here for more in-depth information. I’ve also posted extra information, links and background on the What’s Wild in Cornwall Facebook page.

Pregnant male seahorse (photo credit: The Seahorse Trust)
Pregnant male seahorse (photo credit: The Seahorse Trust)
  • Each seahorse starts its life as a tiny ‘fry’ – a perfect miniature seahorse. It is actually the male that becomes pregnant – the eggs are transferred to him by the female and then fertilised by him and carried in his pouch. He gives birth to many hundreds of fry (the number varies between species) – check out this article and video for more (note the seahorse in the film is not a UK-native species). Very few of the fry – which eat plankton and are self-sufficient from birth – will survive – they make a tasty meal for other creatures.
Courting seahorses (photo credit: The Seahorse Trust)
Courting seahorses (photo credit: The Seahorse Trust)
  • Those seahorses that make it to maturity will generally pair for life. Their courtship dances are beautiful, and they meet every morning (the male and female in each pair hold separate but overlapping territories) to dance together – the secret of a good ‘marriage’, maybe?
  • Unlike other fish, seahorses don’t have scales, but an exoskeleton of hard bony plates.
  • They can see extremely well, and their eyes can in fact swivel independently of each other: they can see backwards and forwards at the same time – very useful when hunting for their prey of small crustaceans, especially as their upright posture, while graceful, means they are not fast swimmers.

As well as being fascinating in their own right, their sensitivity to environmental conditions makes them a good barometer of climate and ecosystem changes.  Most of you will be aware of the impact of the Chinese medicine trade on seahorses, and they are also taken for the pet and curio trade. Closer to home, they are vulnerable to the impact of dredging, damaging fishing practices and anchorages which destroy their habitat (I’ve posted a great little animated film on the Facebook page about how this can avoided – check it out). Marine Conservation Zones will offer some protection, so why not get onto the DEFRA webpage to respond to the consultation and lobby for more Zones to go forward (it may not be in Cornwall, but Studland Bay in Dorset is an important site for seahorses).

Seahorse
A seadragon – not a native, but too beautiful not to include! (Photo credit: Opals-On-Black.com)

In my next post I’ll give some information about other things we can do to help protect our marine environment in Cornwall.  Seahorses are just one of the many  important and interesting creatures we find beneath the waves, and they are worth fighting for.

Caring for our Cornish seas

Kynance

The ocean is mysterious. Poets and writers have been inspired, baffled and entranced by it, from Masefield’s following the ‘call of the running tide’ to Longfellow’s own yearning for the ‘secret of the sea’ to Arnold’s reflections on the slow cadences of ‘the grating roar of pebbles’ at Dover Beach. Cornwall itself has a maritime culture, with its long coastline, ocean-influenced climate and fishing history, and the myths and legends of the sea that fill its folklore and storytelling.

It is hard not to romanticise the oceans. Whether looking out from land to the horizon enthralled by its ebb and flow and constancy, or diving through its surface as a guest in another world, the oceans are a separate place. This apparent ‘otherness’ can make the country beneath the waves appear untouched and unsullied.

Sadly, as most will be aware, this is far, too far, from the truth. Anthropogenic impacts are hitting the seas as much as they are the continents. A walk along the high tide mark on many beaches here in Cornwall reveals the grimy washed-up debris of non-degradeable plastic rubbish; globally, oil spills and pollution have far-reaching impacts; climate change is affecting the chemistry of seawater; over-fishing is depleting fish stocks unsustainably; shipping noise is interfering with cetacean communications; and dredging and anchorages, if not managed sensitively, can destroy the habitats essential to sea creatures and sea plants.

Conservation management of the oceans around the shores of the Cornwall (and elsewhere) is therefore important and urgent. Read my summary of the impact of the Government’s consultation on marine conservation zones in Cornwall  here. Nature bodies such as the Cornwall Wildlife Trust are working hard to improve things. Just like terrestrial conservation, there has to be a balance achieved between preserving ecosystems and nature, and ensuring that communities are able to live and work sustainably: a mutually beneficial partnership between people and nature is of special importance in Cornwall – England’s poorest county economically, but perhaps one of its more important in terms of nature.

For the next couple of weeks, I am going to focus on conservation of the seas round our beautiful Cornish coastline.

In my next post, I’m going to take a look at one of the most iconic and cryptic of our ocean species, the seahorse, in particular the two species of our own shores – the Spiny Seahorse and Short-snouted Seahorse (regular readers of this blog will recall the latter was one of the species that made it into my Cornish Ark). We all know about the impact of the global trade in seahorses for Chinese medicine – but our own seahorses are also endangered due to habitat loss. They are also a fascinating creature – I’ve been really enjoying finding out more about them!

In the following week, I’ll take a look at some of the things we can all do to work for our seas and coastline round Cornwall, and the various organisations and charities that are working hard to preserve our fragile maritime ecosystems.

Lastly, What’s Wild in Cornwall is now on Facebook. Do visit and like the page! I’ll be using the Facebook page to post links and extra information I find relevant to each of my blog posts.

And for the poetry lovers among you, I was (of course) quoting from:

John Masefield Sea Fever

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow The Secret of the Sea

Matthew Arnold Dover Beach

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.