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!


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).

A seadragon – not a native, but too beautiful not to include! (Photo credit:

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.