Caring for our Cornish seas


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.