Thrill of sea creature discoveries in 2022 undermined by huge threats to marine life

The Wildlife Trusts’ annual marine review reflects on the ebb and flow of sightings and successes – and the risks to wildlife around UK shores

 

The highs and lows from the shores of the UK, Alderney and Isle of Man in 2022 include:

 

  • A new species of coral, a 100-year-old shark, orca calves and a very special albatross
  • Avian flu, plastic and oil pollution, and reckless tourists pile pressure on marine life
  • Seagrass success, a puffin phenomenon and new generation of ocean champions

 

Dr Lissa Batey, head of marine conservation at The Wildlife Trusts, says:

 

“From ancient sea creatures to new species for science, the discoveries in this year’s marine review show just how spectacular life is below the waves.

 

“While full of surprises, our oceans are also busy places where wildlife is facing a huge range of pressures – including climate change, pollution and development. The sea needs better protections to help nature recover and thrive as a matter of urgency. That must start with the Government abandoning the dangerous Retained EU Law Bill which threatens to rip up existing laws that protect wildlife and wild places both on land and at sea.

 

“Protecting large areas of our oceans is crucial for fishing and other industries that rely on healthy seas, as well as providing security for important carbon storing habitats like seagrass meadows and seabed sediments.”

 

Extraordinary wildlife sightings highlight diversity and mystery of UK seas

 

Research, monitoring and advances in technology have enabled scientists to uncover a wealth of new information about marine life. Exciting discoveries show how much there is still to learn about UK seas and why legal protections are vital for wildlife and climate.

 

  • A new species of deep-sea coral, Pseudumbellula scotiae, was discovered 240 miles off Scotland’s west coast. Found at depths of up to 2,000m in the Rockall Trough, it is completely new to science. The find is a sign of undisturbed natural habitat and shows why bottom-trawling must be banned to protect marine life.
  • A 100-year-old Greenland shark washed up at Newlyn in Cornwall – the second ever UK stranding of this species. These creatures have the longest lifespan of all vertebrates, making them vulnerable to overfishing. Protecting large areas of ocean is key to the future of long-living marine life.
  • Leicester and Rutland Wildlife discovered the fossilised remains of Britain’s largest ichthyosaur – a prehistoric sea creature known as a ‘Sea Dragon’. News of the find was shared with the world in January.
  • A black-browed albatross returned to Bempton cliffs in Yorkshire. ‘Albie’ is believed to be the only albatross in the Northern Hemisphere and the same bird that blew off course in 1967.
  • Volunteers with Cornwall Wildlife Trust discovered Babakina anadoni – a type of sea slug – the first official record of this species in UK waters. Another sea slug, Corambe testudinaria, usually found near the French coast, was recorded off the UK for the first time.
  • Manx Wildlife Trust recorded the first ever swordfish off the Isle of Man. They are typically found in tropical waters of the mid-Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean.
  • Cetaceans continued to delight observers with records of bottlenose, common, white-sided and Risso’s dolphins, and harbour porpoise around the UK. Sightings of pilot, fin, minke and humpback whales show how populations are recovering following bans on commercial whaling, for example:
    • Two new orca calves were spotted off Shetland in January, a positive sign for the Northern Isles community pod.
    • Volunteers recorded a large group of minke whales, normally solitary animals, gathering off the Yorkshire coast in August. Over 80 sightings were recorded in one morning. In very rare sightings for the region, Cumbria Wildlife Trust reported minke whales near its Walney Island nature reserve and off the coast of Workington.
    • Cornwall Wildlife Trust recorded a stranded Atlantic white-sided dolphin – the first time one has stranded in the UK in over 10 years.
    • Monitoring by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust suggests bottlenose dolphins are now present off Yorkshire year-round. Dolphins found off Scotland commonly visit Yorkshire’s coast to feed in summer, but it’s thought they are now increasingly visiting in winter.
    • There were plenty of sightings of humpback whales – including a young calf seen near the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall. More than 75 humpbacks have been recorded by Cornwall Wildlife Trust since 2019. Sussex Wildlife Trust also recorded a humpback sighting near Brighton Marina.
  • In the summer, Cornwall Wildlife Trust reported huge numbers of octopus around the Lizard Peninsula. Experts believe it is the sign of a healthy population and possible octopus boom, an event last recorded over 70 years ago.

 

Avian flu, oil leaks, plastics in sea birds and disturbances, ramp up pressure on marine life

 

Wildlife in UK seas faces multiple threats from pollution, overfishing, development, and climate change. In 2022, wildlife had to cope with:

 

  • A global pandemic of avian flu, which has killed tens of thousands of seabirds across the UK. The ongoing outbreak is the worst ever recorded in the UK, devastating huge colonies of wild birds including gannets and skuas. Research shows at least 13% of the UK population of great skuas – 8% of the global population – have died. Northumberland Wildlife Trust collected over 800 dead birds, mainly sandwich terns, from its Druridge Bay nature reserve alone.
  • There were multiple reports of people irresponsibly disturbing marine life. The Wildlife Trusts encourage people to follow the WiSE scheme – a training course that promotes responsible wildlife watching. Incidents included:
    • At Puffin Island in North Wales – a protected site – a group on jet skiers were filmed ploughing through colonies of seabirds.
    • Manx Wildlife Trust was forced to issue a warning to visitors after reports of people disturbing a group of 100 of seals at Point Ayre.
    • At St Austell Bay in Cornwall, vets confirmed that a stranded dolphin with catastrophic injuries had died as the result of collision with a boat propeller.
  • Pollution continues to cause havoc for UK seas:
    • Several oil spills were recorded in 2022. In February, around 500 barrels leaked from a cracked pipe twenty miles off north Wales at Rhyl. Kent Wildlife Trust reported a significant oil slick off the coast of Thanet. Alderney Wildlife Trust rehabilitated seabirds found covered in oil after Storm Eunice.
    • A study of dead manx shearwaters on Skomer Island found the majority had eaten plastic, with adults feeding pieces to chicks. Scientists fear that 99% of seabirds may have plastics in their stomachs by 2050.
  • An investigation is underway following the mass mortalities of crabs, lobsters and other species that washed up along the Northeast coast at the end of 2021. Research suggests the event may have been caused by industrial pollutants from dredging in the River Tees. The incident underlines the need to investigate how industrial activity can affect marine life.

 

Charities’ innovative projects help restore UK seas

 

The Wildlife Trusts – supported by volunteers, businesses and other charities – have embarked on many projects this year to help wildlife and restore coastal habitats, which are critical for storing carbon.

 

The Wildlife Trusts’ projects offer glimmers of hope to seabird havens:

  • South and West Wales Wildlife Trust recorded a 240% increase in the Atlantic Puffin populations on Skomer and Skokholm islands in the last ten years – with almost 39,000 birds counted this year. The rise contrasts with declines of puffins at other UK colonies, especially those in northern Britain. Puffins continue to be at risk of extinction in other areas. Experts and academics are doing research to understand the increase.
  • The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust built almost 50 nest boxes for Manx shearwaters ahead of the 2022 nesting season. The artificial burrows were created to help reduce competition for sites. There were an estimated 100,000 breeding pairs on the Isles of Scilly in the 19th century, but now only around 1,000 remain – though the population is on the increase again.
  • At least 69 little tern chicks successfully fledged from Point of Ayr in Wales, suggesting a strong colony is developing that is better prepared for future sea level rises than the nearby larger colony at Gronant.
  • Alderney Wildlife Trust reported a bumper year for ringed plovers after beach cordons helped a record number of chicks to fledge. All pairs nesting within cordons reared chicks to fledging, and those nests survived three-times longer than those outside the zones.
  • Cumbria Wildlife Trust helped populations of herring and lesser black-backed gulls to recover. Thanks to the installation of predator-proof fencing, the number of gulls nesting and fledging at South Walney Nature Reserve has risen by 150% in two years.

 

The Wildlife Trusts are working to research, restore and protect habitats that sequester and store carbon:

  • Several Wildlife Trusts started huge projects to restore seagrass – which can absorb and store carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust planted thousands of seeds in Langstone Harbour and at Seaview, Isle of Wight. Elsewhere, Cornwall Wildlife Trust launched a seagrass restoration project with Seasalt Clothing, and helped seagrass recover by removing unused moorings in Falmouth Harbour. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust partnered with Ørsted to restore 74 acres of seagrass in the Humber Estuary. Manx Wildlife Trust and Cumbria Wildlife Trust also discovered new seagrass meadows.
  • The UK will become the first nation to produce a complete map of its blue carbon stores. The Blue Carbon Mapping project – led by the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in collaboration with The Wildlife Trusts, WWF and RSPB – have begun the task and will publish results in the summer of 2023.
  • Essex Wildlife Trust created a toolkit for restoring saltmarsh to inspire and guide similar projects around the UK.
  • A coalition of organisations, including several Wildlife Trusts, have come together to find solutions to the challenges nature is facing in the Irish Sea. The Irish Sea Network will champion collaborative action, sustainable fishing and strategic planning to protect wildlife.
  • The Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative (ENORI), which includes Essex Wildlife Trust, deployed 900 cubic metres of ‘cultch’ to restore 7200 square metres of the seabed and help the native oyster population recover. Cultch is a mixture of stone and broken shells and provides habitat to improve the chances of oyster reproduction.

 

Empowering young people and communities to save our seas

 

The Wildlife Trusts equipped people with skills and knowledge to help protect marine life:

  • Essex Wildlife Trust taught local people how to identify seagrass so they can survey areas local to them.
  • Cornwall Wildlife Trust celebrated 10 years of Shoresearch, a citizen science survey of the intertidal shore where the sea meets the land. Over 750 volunteers have carried out almost 300 surveys over the last decade.
  • The Bay, a nature, health and wellbeing project at Morecambe Bay celebrated its first birthday. In just one year it has attracted over 5,300 people to marine events and over 200 people have been referred by health care providers or by themselves to enjoy the coast to improve their mental health.
  • Scottish Wildlife Trust published a series of snorkel trails to encourage people to experience the wonders beneath the waves.

 

The Wildlife Trusts worked with schools, colleges, and universities to give children young people experience in marine conservation:

  • Students from the University of Essex learned completed a course on saltmarsh restoration with Essex Wildlife Trust.
  • Hull University students worked with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to plant and restore seagrass beds.
  • Art students at Sunderland College took part in beach-cleaning events with Durham Wildlife Trust.
  • Teacher training delivered by Cheshire Wildlife Trust has helped more than 400 schoolchildren learn about wildlife in the Dee Estuary.
  • Several Wildlife Trusts developed marine education packs for schools.