Morecambe Bay Cycle Path

February 22nd, 2022
Views along the Morecambe Bay Cycle Path. Photos by Lews Bambury.
Views along the Morecambe Bay Cycle Path. Photos by Lewis Bambury

The Bay Cycle Way will take you on a 130km (80 mile) journey from Glasson Dock, around Morecambe Bay, as far as Barrow in Furness. The route along one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in Britain, gives the cyclist the opportunity to explore its natural history, transport, industry, landscape and art.

Over the last year Lewis Bambury has cycled the length of the Morecambe Bay Cycle Path in stages, as part of his recuperation from long COVID. His talk to the group in February opened a great deal of interested discussion from those present.

Our next talk is at the George and Dragon, Lancaster, on 9th March 2022. Presented by Mark Woombs (Lancashire MCS/CAOLAS), it will look at the marine life in Loch Tarbert (Isle of Jura). Subscribe to our Newsletter to keep up to date with what is going on at Lancashire MCS!

Posted in MCS talks

Loch Sunart, an underwater journey, by Mark Woombs

October 26th, 2021

At the George and Dragon, Wednesday November 10th at 19:30. Donations requested to Lancashire MCS.

Loch Sunart marine life montage by Mark Woombs

Photograph above: Designated a Marine Protected area to protect (bottom images from left to right) flame shells, Northern feather stars and serpulid worms; the protection of Loch Sunart has allowed the recovery of species such as the spur dog, a relative of the catshark (top). All photos by Mark Woombs

Join marine biologist Mark Woombs as he explores the underwater life of Loch Sunart; from the Sound of Mull to the sheltered waters at the head of the Loch by Strontian (the only town in the world to have a chemical element named after it!). Loch Sunart has been designated as a ‘Scottish Marine Protected Area’, and features a wide range of habitats that are home to some of the most interesting and colourful marine life in British waters.

Please help prevent the spread of COVID by taking a Lateral Flow Test on the morning before joining us!

Posted in Events, MCS talks, Science

Our Unique Sea Lochs

May 6th, 2021

Talk by Gordon Fletcher, Lancashire MCS

Wednesday, 19th May at 19:30 via Zoom

Photo of Loch Creran by Gordon Fletcher 2016
Above: Photo of Loch Creran, on the West Coast of Scotland, by Gordon Fletcher, Summer 2016.

Sea Lochs contain a great diversity of habitats that can be exploited by marine wildlife – from fast flowing tidal narrows to sheltered muddy head waters; and pretty much everything in between! Many sea lochs are also readily accessible to divers, providing insights into these uniquely rich marine environments…

Invitations have been sent out in our May Newsletter – if you are not signed up (or have not received your newsletter) but would like to attend, please contact us.

Posted in MCS talks

AGM and Zooplankton

April 10th, 2021

Our annual AGM will be on Wednesday the 21st April 2021, at the start of our regular Zoom meeting entitled ‘There’s something swimming in my soup…’. The meeting will look at Zooplankton from around the West Coast of the UK. These tiny animals form a vital part of the marine ecosystem, eating the even tinier phytoplankton, and in turn being eaten by a whole range of larger marine predators.

A 'zoea' larva of the velvet swimming crab Necora puber. Photo BK, Lochaline March 2008.
Many animals start life in the zooplankton – this is a juvenile velvet swimming crab (photo BK, 2008)

A note for the AGM – we welcome input from everyone; but you must be a member of National MCS to vote on financial matters!

Zoom connection details have been sent out in this month’s newsletter, please contact me if you have not received your invitation, and would like to be included in our mailing list!

Posted in MCS talks

CLAWS! Identifying UK Crustaceans.

March 4th, 2021

A talk by Lewis Bambury, Lancashire MCS

19:30, Wednesday 10th March 2021 via Zoom

Spider crab by Lewis Bambury
Above: Spider crab (Inachus spp.) by Lewis Bambury, 31st October 2015 Loch Linhe, West Coast of Scotland

Animals looking like Crustaceans have been around for at least 500 million years, and in that time have evolved into many forms. We will try to help you identify some of the 2000 species of crustaceans that you may find in the UK, concentrating on those that may be encountered either on the shore or at recreational diving depths. Both the common and some more unusual species, and some that you may not have even thought of as being crustaceans before.

If you would like to join us for one of our meetings – please subscribe to our Newsletter.

Posted in MCS talks

Phytoplankton ID

January 14th, 2021
Photomicrograph of Melosira BK 2020

Our online ID course on Wednesday 20th January 2021 will look at some of the most common phytoplankton sampled from the Morecambe Bay area and the West Coast of Scotland. This is a basic introduction to sampling and identification.

Posted in MCS talks, Science

Online Marine Life ID courses

November 24th, 2020

As we are not able to hold our usual winter meetings, we have been looking into moving these online. These meetings are by invitation through our newsletter (you can subscribe here).

Our first meeting (on Wednesday the 2nd December) will be:

Echinus esculentus by Mark Woombs
The sea urchin Echinus esculentus, photo by Mark Woombs

Prickly customers – your online guide to echinoderms! by Mark Woombs. (Please note that invitations to this meeting went out in our December newsletter).

Planned future meetings include:

  • The lives of Jellyfish by Gordon Fletcher
  • Identification of phytoplankton by Barry Kaye
  • Crustacea by Lewis Bambury

Barry Kaye

Posted in Events, MCS talks

Vanishing Seagrass Meadows

April 3rd, 2020

A talk presented by Barry Kaye (Lancashire MCS) March 2020. References and further reading are presented below the main talk.

Marine Plants

Line drawing of dabberlocks, a typical seaweed.

Most marine plants are microscopic ‘phytoplankton’. Of those that are large enough to see, the most common are ‘seaweeds’. These plants are adapted to live in shallow marine and intertidal areas where there is plently of light. Seawater provides the nutrients seaweeds need to live, so they just need to cling on to their preferred location, so they are not swept somewhere less hospitable: Where there is insufficient light or nutrients for them to compete with other species, or where they may be eaten faster than they can grow.

To do this they use a ‘holdfast’, which may appear root-like, but which works more in the manner of a hand, gripping a rock, rather than a root, which penetrates the soil.

Higher Plants

Daffodils in Williamson Park, Lancaster, Spring 2020.

‘Higher’ plants have largely solved the problems of living on land. There is lots of light above ground, but the entire plant is not bathed in nutrients – these must be extracted from ground water through roots, which are buried away from the sun. Light absorbtion requires specialised leaves or fronds, held some distance above the ground to get the most light. The division of labours requires a sophisitcated transport (‘vascular’) network to bring together the requirements for photosynthesis, and spread its benefits to all parts of the plant.

These plants are not, however, well adapted to life in the sea – underwater there is less light than they are used to. Further, marine sediments are typically anoxic, so any part of the plant penetrating them must be supplied with oxygen to survive. As a consequence the roots would depend entirely on the exposed leaves for all of life’s essentials.

While roots do not help sustain the plant in a marine ecosystem, they can anchor it in soft sediments. This is an ecosystem that seaweeds cannot easily colonise, as their holdfasts have very little to grip onto, so cannot hold their position in anything other than the slightest currents. Some seaweeds have developed ingenious methods for reducing the strain on their holdfasts, such as springy bodies that absorb wave currents, rather than transmitting these stresses to the holdfast, which might become dislodged (see the ‘rubberiest plant on the planet‘ elsewhere on this blog, which provides insight into the complex internal structures displayed by some seaweeds – though these structures are rarely associated simply with transport of nutrients).

As a consequence, areas of shallow seas with soft sediments – sands or muds – can be successfully colonised by higher plants, with little competition from the otherwise well established seaweeds. The plants that have succeeded in doing this are called ‘seagrasses’. There a number of superficially similar species around the world, their forms being dictated by the rigours of the environment they have colonised.

Sheltered community

Seagrass bed off the Isle of Gigha, with two spot gobies.

While seagrasses have been shaped by their environment, they also have an important role in shaping the environment in which they live. Seagrass shelters the water beneath its canopy, providing a refuge for juvenile fish, and stabilising the sediment for burrowers.

The blades of seagrass also exert a drag on the waves that pass over them. It has been calculated that substantial seagrass meadows can reduce wave height by as much as 50% on its trip from the open sea to the shore. (This is a very substantial reduction in wave energy, which is proportional to the square of the wave height).

In short, seagrass is as valuable as it is unlikely, supporting fisheries, and protecting coastal communities (and proterty). In the UK we only have one truly marine species of seagrass – Zostera maritima, which is shown in the photograph above. You can see some of the species that make it their home – two spot gobies, with a larger fish lurking in the background. The diversity of community is made clear when you compare the photo above to that below – taken of an adjacent patch of bare sand:

Photo adjacent to a seagrass bed, showing the paucity of life on the open sediment.

While seaweeds find it hard to establish on open sand, if there are no larger rocks to cling to, they have no problem colonising the seagrass itself. Often blades of seagrass are thickly tufted with fine filamentous algae – which are a serious problem, as they reduce the amount of light the seagrass gets. Fortunately, help is on hand from a range of small sea-snails, who are quite happy to eat the offending algae, providing a serendipitous cleaning service for the seagrass.

Banded snails on a strand of seagrass (BK, Gigha).
Above: Banded snails (Barleeia unifasciata) cleaning algae from a blade of seagrass.

Algae and snails are not the only organisms to attach themselves to seagrass blades, and for some the presence of seagrass is essential for their survival. The critter below is a marine oddity – a stalked jellyfish. It belongs to a broader group that includes anemones and jellyfish. Indeed, this staked jellyfish is one that has given up its free floating existance and become tied to the seagrass. As a group the stalked jellyfish are characterised by their ‘stay at home’ nature. Not only have they given up a life of constant voyage, but they do not travel even as juveniles.

Haliclystus octoradiatus
Haliclystus octoradiatus photographed off the Isle of Gigha, October 2019. Haliclystus seems to be associated with more overgrown blades, and I wonder if it is eating the seagrass cleaning service?

Disappearing meadows

As a home to stay-at-home species like the stalked jellyfish, you would think that seagrass meadows must be pretty stable places – stable enough that you don’t need to look for a new home very often at least! Indeed, seagrass meadows off the island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean have been estimated to be thousands of years old…

Sadly, the last century has shown that many seagrass meadows are in fact very fragile. It is estimated that approximately 90% of the area of seagrass meadows around the UK have been lost in the last century. The largest losses occurred in the 1930’s, but there has been limited or no recovery since.

Disease

Blades of seagrass showing bleaching and black spots characteristic of infection with Labarinthula in a meadow that is otherwise unaffected.

Zostera maritima has been lost from all North Atlantic coastal regions. The principle cause of the loss has been put down to disease. The slime mould Labyrinthula zosterae, thought to be the culprit, colonises modern meadows, but generally without ill-effect. It seems that since the mass deaths of the 1930’s Zostera and Labarinthula have come to an uneasy truce. If the Zostera is stressed in any way, however, then Labarinthula gains the upper hand, and the plant will quickly die…

Stressed seagrass

Pollution: When we think about marine pollution, catastrophic oil spills grab the headlines, and so dominate our perceptions. Most Zostera beds are, however, relatively resistant to oil spills; paradoxically the oil-dispersant mixtures used to break the slick up and get it off our beaches, can be more damaging. Problems due to elevated nutrient levels from sewage and agricultural run-off, are insiduous, and very much harder to quantify and mitigate…

One result of elevated nutrient levels in seawater is the growth of algae – in the water column, and attached to the Zostera blades. Both of these reduce the light reaching the plants. Human activity can also effect the amount of light reaching the meadow, by suspending fine sediments in the water column through dredging, or bottom trawling.

A final insult to seagrass beds from human activity are the moorings of leisure craft. Typically these moorings have a length of chain running along the bottom that provides play to allow the boat to rise and fall with the tide. As the boat does so, and moves in response to wind and currents, however, the chain is dragged accross the sea bed, leaving cleared circles in the seagrass beds that can be seen from space…

Not all of seagrasses stress is from humans – prior to 1930, seagrass beds were the primary food source for Brent geese Branta bernicla. When the seagrass died, so did the geese. In fact the species was nearly extinguished by the tragedy, and only escaped extinction by broadening its diet to take sealettuce (a seaweed). Modern brent geese have further diversified to forage on coastal grasslands , resulting in a resurgence for the species.

Unfortunately Brent geese still have a liking for seagrass; but the seagrass meadows have not recovered. As a consequence a large flock of geese can cause considerable damage to any meadows in their environ.

Plans for recovery

Globally, seagrass meadows still have massive economic significance. They are a nursery for many commercial and subsitance fisheries, and have an important role in coastal protection. Often, however, their loss is most keenly felt by the poorest; those whose means of subsistence has been lost, who cannot afford sea defences, or to move as the sea sweeps in…

It was heartening, therefore, to read of a UK innitiative to try and reverse this trend of loss. Reported in the Guardian on the 10th March 2020, Project Seagrass has a global outlook, but most interestingly for me, is looking at re-seeding areas of former seagrass beds at Dale Bay in Pembrokshire. I wish them luck in their enterprise (and you can donate to their efforts through the link in the references section below!)


References – further reading

The drawings and photographs illustrating this piece are my own – I am not able to display some of the slides I used in the talk here for copyright reasons.

Estimates of the reduction in wave energy due to seagrass beds can be found in: Effect of a seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) meadow on wave propagation by E. Infantes, A. Orfila, G. Simarro, J. Terrados, M. Luhar and H. Nepf. in Mar Ecol Prog Ser 456: 63– 72, 2012. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps09754

A study on the diversity and stability of seagrass meadows can be found in Long-term persistence of structured habitats: seagrass meadows as enduring hotspots of biodiversity and faunal stability by A. Challen Hyman, Thomas K. Frazer, Charles A. Jacoby, Jessica R. Frost and Michał Kowalewski. Proc Roy Soc B Published:02 October 2019 https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861

Stalked jellyfish are not a common find underwater, you can find out more about their lifestyle at STAUROMEDUSAE / STAUROZOA. The identity of species photographed was established with the assistance of of the Stauromedusae UK website, I had previously mis-identified it as H. auricula, which is found in guide books, though apparently a rather rare…

The seagrass meadows off Ibiza are composed of Posidonia oceanica, and lay a claim to be home to the oldest plants on the planet. Cloned individuals have been estimated to be 100,000 years old. Sadly they are under threat – for more information see Ibiza and Formentera Preservation (Posidonia).

The loss of Seagrass meadows around the British Isles is catalogued by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. You can see maps showing the declining distribution at BSBI Maps.

The factors causing problems for British seagrass beds have been documented in ZOSTERA BIOTOPES An overview of dynamics and sensitivity characteristics for conservation management of marine SACs by D.M. Davison and D.J. Hughes. Scottish Association for Marine Science, which is available in online.

You can see the circles cut in the seagrass in the satellite view of Studland Bay on Google maps.

Efforts to re-seed former meadows were reported in the Guardian on the 10th March 2020. The scheme is an initiative of the Project Seagrass charity.

Posted in MCS talks, Science

Sea Shepherd

February 16th, 2020
Sea Shepherd logo and banner image.
Sea Shepherd logo and banner image, (Sea Shepherd website acquisition date Dec. 2019).

The Sea Shepherd conservation organisation, with its emphasis on direct action, is no stranger to controversy. Founded in 1977 by Paul Watson (a founding member of Greenpeace), early action saw the first Sea Shepherd ram and sink the whaler Sierra. Sea Shepherd herself sank immediately prior to being impounded, and handed over to the whalers in compensation.

The high profile activity, has gained a lot of high profile supporters, allowing the organisation to retain a fleet of 15 ships; with two high speed RIBs based in the UK. Conservation challenges being addressed by the organisation include:

  • Illegal whaling
  • Commercial overfishing
  • Shark fishing and de-finning
  • Seal culs
  • Cetacean drive hunting
  • Plastic litter and ‘ghost nets’

Cetacean hunting, in all its forms, is one of the most emotive subjects in Marine Conservation. The demonstrated intelligence, and sociability of these animals, should be taken into consideration when judging their commercial, sporting and recreational use. Some of the areas touched on in Amanda’s talk included:

In the UK, Sea Shepherd is engaged in two main areas:

The Marine Debris Campaign is a beach clean initiative. See SSUK’s events calendar for beach cleans in your area!

The Ghostnet Campaign aims to tackle the enormous, and greatly under-reported, issue of ghost fishing. SSUK estimates that 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost around the UK every year. This total includes 1250 kilometres of fishing net. The gear continues to take marine life, even though it is not in anyone’s quota, and the fish killed will not end up on anyone’s plate…

Sea Shepherd are helping to train experienced volunteer divers, giving them the skills to remove nets and other gear safely. The Ghostnet Retrieval Course is in partnership with Scuba Diving International (SDi). See the Sea Shepherd website Ghostnet Campaign (link above) for minimum qualifications, and how to get involved.

Sea Shepherds was a talk by Amanda Newton to Lancashire MCS on 12th February 2020.

Posted in Conservation, MCS talks

Lancashire’s Living Seas

December 13th, 2019
Sea slug in a sponge garden at Roa Island, 2015, by Barry.
Sea slug in a sponge garden at Roa Island, 2015, by Barry Kaye.

The North West has a diverse range of coastal habitats, from the tidal mudflats of Morecambe Bay, to seacliffs at St Bees in Cumbria, and dune systems of the Fylde coastline. These provide homes for a wide range of life, which is fed by the nutrient rich waters of the Irish Sea.

Recently a number of new MCZs have been approved in the North West to help protect the organisms that live here – including the estuaries of the Ribble and Wyre and Lune, which have been designated in part to protect the smelt (or cucumber fish – so called because it smells of cucumber!).

It will be important in the future to actively manage these new conservation zones, which are under pressure from a range of factors, including:

  • Plastic (and other) pollution (see the amounts of plastic being collected at Silverdale, for example)
  • Overfishing, where by-catch and practices such as bottom trawling are immensely damaging to communities that dwell in and on the soft sediments of the Irish Sea.
  • Development, the installation of offshore wind turbines (for example) causes sound pollution that has an effect on marine wildlife that is not restricted to cetaceans. (Members of the audience pointed out that once installed, the turbines do provide a managed and effective haven for fish stocks, as sea traffic around the turbine bases is restricted).
  • Climate change, with increased temperature moving the preferred range for species Northwards, and acidification reducing reducing the fitness of species that rely on calcareous structures, e.g. shells or exoskeletons.

The Wildlife Trusts organise a range of coastal activities that you can get involved with, from shore searches (grown up rock pooling) to christmas tree planting on the Fylde, to protect and enhance the dune system. For more information, or to get involved see:

Living Seas North West (Lancashire, Manchester North Merseyside)

Lancashire’s Living Seas, was a talk by Eleanor Falch to Lancashire MCS on Wednesday 11th December 2019

Posted in Conservation, MCS talks