Monitoring marine life

There are few vistas of the Cornish landscape untouched by man: we and our ancestors have played a part in the formation of almost every part of it. If we could bring back a Mesolithic Cornishman, he would find most places unrecognisable, but the rugged coastline and rocky shores would still be familiar.
There he collected shellfish such as limpets, making tools specifically to dislodge them. The fauna and flora probably remain more or less the same, despite the effects of the Torrey Canyon oil and the detergent used to remove it. But would we have been better placed, 30 years on, had the Sea Empress come aground on the Cornish coastline? The starting point is to be sure of what our marine biological resources are now; what species and populations make up our coastline ecosystems and how are they distributed? Only then can we identify trends and help resist the pressures that might be driving change.
My first experience of Cornwall s rich marine fauna was an oyster dredge survey of the Fal and Truro River I carried out for MAFF in 1962 with the then Fisheries Officer Frankie Gunn. The clear waters of the Fal, and its tree-lined shores, were so different to the expanse of the East Coast where I was brought up. I remember well the newness of it all as we worked past Turnaware Point to the moored ships, so close to the foreshores, overhung by oaks like brooding brows.
Every dredge haul was a delight, full of exciting invertebrate species that I knew only from the guides. Crabs were in abundance - the odd spiny spider crab, large, slow and cumbersome, and velvet swimming crabs that would set off across the deck in aggressive posture, their angry red eyes gleaming in the sunlight. Hermit crabs were common, some with a symbiotic anemone firmly attached to the whelk shell inhabited by the crab. The odd scallop was common in the open waters of the Fal; more commonly the variegated scallop, and sometimes queens. Occasionally a large empty shell would arrive on deck sheltering a butterfish. And of course there were the oysters - the reason why we were there.
Much has been done in recent years to conserve marine life in Cornwall. There are several Voluntary marine Conservation Areas around its coast, such as that on the Helford (see page 6), which are doing a good job to raise awareness of the need for conservation. But what of the role of the Trust?
One long-term aim is to set all pre-existing and new data for marine species in the LIFE Project GIS (Geographic Information System), which is presently limited to terrestrial and freshwater species. With the CBRU now an integral part of the Trust, its wealth of information on marine species and their distribution is now being linked to the GIS. The GIS is central to our thinking and will the repository for all new data, providing the best means of archiving information and presenting it in a form which is easy to assimilate and communicate to those we most wish to influence.
In a new marine project funded by the EU, "The Atlantic Living Coastline", we aim to take forward this approach, involving the same partners, Cornwall County Council s Planning Department and now the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Our partners also include the Devon Wildlife Trust and County Council in a integrated project designed to provide a spur to marine work within the Trust.
Plans to do this have been evolving for some time now, to co-ordinate survey and monitoring work, and have been welcomed by the Scientific Committee. We agreed that the first step was to attract funding to appoint a Marine Co-ordinator. Then we can adopt appropriate techniques, choose sites and initiate work to survey and monitor routinely, since we need to know what we have if we are to protect it effectively - let alone detect trends and the pressures that might be causing them.

Tony Stebbing
The velvet swimming crab
"angry red eyes gleaming in the sunlight2 - The velvet swimming crab - Photo: Nick Tregenza

Trust President Tony Stebbing works for the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, where he co-ordinates the Land-Ocean Interaction Study (LOIS). His experience and influence is a great asset to the Trust in the expansion of its marine work.

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