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Wildlife Trusts publish Marine Review for 2020

The Wildlife Trusts has published its Marine Review for 2020, revealing both highs and lows for our coastal wildlife.

Compiled by the Trusts’ Living Seas teams, who are the eyes and ears of the UK coast, the report looks back at some memorable moments from the past year.

In good news, thousands of people thrilled at the sight of whales and dolphins in the seas around our coast and marine birds and grey seals thrived in greater numbers than ever.

A ‘run’ of Atlantic bluefin tuna delighted observers from Cornwall to Kent as they chased shoals of mackerel, sardines and herring earlier last year. Up to 10ft long, these powerful fish can speed over 40 mph, and at some points were accompanied by porpoise, minke whale and dolphins, in a huge feeding frenzy.

Bluefin tuna (Joe Pender 2020)

In May, people watched in awe as two orcas – killer whales – were seen in Strangford Lough for the first time in at least 50 years.  One of them was recognised as ‘John Coe’, identified by the notch on his dorsal fin and the fact he is missing a chunk of his fluke. The pair are part of the West Coast Community, the only resident UK population of orcas, made up of 8 whales.

Orca Strangford Lough Ulster 2020 (Ronald Surgenor)

More than 30 bottlenose dolphins were spotted ‘partying’ off the Teesside coast in uplifting, playful displays that delighted locals for weeks this August. Recorded by Tees Valley Wildlife Trust as part of the North Sea Cetacean Recording Project, the bottlenose dolphins were seen frolicking off Saltburn Pier, metres from captivated bystanders on the shore. The dolphin group was also spotted off Redcar and Hartlepool, and even earned their own Facebook fan club, set up by a Tees Valley Wildlife Trust volunteer!

Bottlenose dolphins (Simon Wilcock)

Yorkshire established itself as a marine eco-tourism hotspot in 2020 following increased public sightings of minke whale off its coast. Northern minke whales can grow up to 10m in length and weigh up to 6 tons. They can dive up to 200m beneath the waves and typically feed on shoals of fish including herring mackerel and krill, devouring hundreds at a time, in large mouthfuls.

Minke whale breaching (Tom McDonnell)

Cumbria Wildlife Trust reported another successful year for grey seals with 412 adults and 5 pups recorded at South Walney nature reserve. In Alderney, in the Channel Islands, grey seal numbers doubled to 45 in 2020, with Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Donna Nook reserve reporting 2,204 grey seal pups, with more yet to be born.

Grey seal pup (Emily Baxter)

An extremely rare sighting of a stunning species of sea slug was made this November by a Cornwall Wildlife Trust Seasearch volunteer. The sea slug, Placida cremoniana, is a miniscule orange and black sacoglossan (or a sap sucking) sea slug measuring just millimetres in length. This species resembles a glowing lump of coal – but one covered in spikes – and is more usually found in the Pacific or Mediterranean.

Sacoglossan sea slug 2020 (Matt Slater, Cornwall Wildlife Trust)

Arctic tern pairs were up by 2900% and Sandwich tern pairs by 65% at North Wales Cemlyn nature reserve in 2020. Tern species are slender, elegant birds and used to be known as ‘sea swallows’. A migratory species, Arctic terns travel thousands of miles to and from the southern hemisphere to Wales, in order to breed

Arctic tern (Cemlyn wardens North Wales Wildlife Trust)

Handa island off the Scottish coast recorded the highest number of Guillemots since 2004 in 2020. Guillemots breed on sheer cliff faces but spend most of their time out at sea. Scotland is an important home for these birds, with populations reaching up to 50,000 in a typical summer.

Guillemots on Handa Island (Pete Haskell)

Rare evidence was captured on camera of a baby Risso’s dolphin, born off the coast of Anglesey, Wales, earlier last year. The photo, taken by a wildlife enthusiast, clearly shows the foetal folds on the calf’s body, indicating it had only recently been born.

The Risso’s dolphin is a large, stocky dolphin, without the ‘beak’ and with a large and upright dorsal fin. A small population visits the Welsh coast in late summer and autumn to feed off squid and other cephalopods.

Risso’s dolphin with foetal folds Wales 2020 (Anne and George Boyer)

Successful re-introductions in highly protected locations in Wales, Kent, Sussex, Devon, Cornwall and recently Lancashire is great news for the UK’s rarest lizard. Lancashire Wildlife Trust revealed a ‘top secret’ sand lizard population in August, with more 391 sand lizards released onto the dunes, just south of Blackpool, resulting in the lizards thriving for the first time since the 1960s.

Sand lizard (Amy Pennington)

In December 2020, new Marine Protected Areas were announced in Scotland, for species including basking sharks and minke whales, alongside 12 new Special Protection Areas for marine birds.

However, the bad news is that marine wildlife is in greater peril than ever from plastic, nurdles, litter, discarded fishing gear and disposable PPE and dredging of the seabed off our coast has been hugely damaging.

President Emeritus of The Wildlife Trusts, Sir David Attenborough, says:

“The seas around the UK are home to the most extraordinary wildlife. We’re fortunate that our seas are protected by a blue belt of marine protected areas but sadly this does not prevent damaging activities still occurring in these special places. Bottom-towed dredging and trawling destroys fragile sea fans and soft corals on the seabed, while dredging to install cables to offshore wind farms changes the seabed and its wildlife forever.

For too long we have taken from the sea with little regard for the consequences. We are all aware of the problems presented by plastic litter, but some pollutants and impacts are hidden from view, beneath the surface of the waves. Our Government needs to tackle these problems but we can all do our bit too.”

Main image: Basking shark, Inner Hebrides Scotland (Alexander Mustard 2020VISION)

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