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How the Marine Mudness campaign aims to raise awareness for Irish Sea conservation

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 August 2016

Marine mudness - (c) Kirsten Carter

Marine mudness - (c) Kirsten Carter

Kirsten Carter

A campaign has been launched to raise awareness of the wonders of the Irish Sea. North West Marine Conservation Officer, Emily Baxter, explains what it's all about.

Grey seal. Picture by Tom MarshallGrey seal. Picture by Tom Marshall

Cheshire is one of eight Wildlife Trusts around the Irish Sea and is working with the others on a range of Living Seas projects and campaigns to protect our own, very special part of the Irish Sea. The UK is slowly getting a network of marine protected areas to save our precious marine life. But one of the big ‘missing links’ is in the Irish Sea.

Sir David Attenborough once said: ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.’

But what if we can’t easily experience something, does this mean we shouldn’t protect it? What if the place we want to protect is dark and murky, and the creatures that live there are a little ‘unusual’?

For the Irish Sea, this is our reality. You may think its deep muddy plains would be like an empty desert but these habitats have the potential to be as diverse as the Amazon rainforest. Mud is rich in nutrients and supports a vast array of creatures from angular crabs to delicate sea pens, strange spoon worms and the world’s longest-lived animal, a clam called the ocean quahog.

Dublin Bay prawn. Picture by Paul NaylorDublin Bay prawn. Picture by Paul Naylor

On or above the mud are plaice, sole, cod, haddock and whiting. In turn, these nutrient-rich seas support seabirds, whales, dolphins and sharks. This is the circle of life.

However, the mud is also a valuable fishing ground for the Dublin Bay prawn (aka the pub-grub favourite scampi, or the posh-nosh langoustine). Prawns can survive in quite degraded habitats, thriving especially when their predators (like cod, sharks and rays) have been heavily over-exploited.

Whitefish stocks in the Irish Sea are reaching crisis point, suffering declines of 80-90% since the late 1980s. Prawns have now become the target of one of the most valuable fisheries in the Irish Sea, but this could be preventing other fish stocks from recovering due to issues with bycatch and habitat damage.

The evidence is plain to see, if you could see the seabed. Trawl scars are left in the mud and 20-50cm of the seabed surface has been removed by trawling over the past few decades. Deep muddy habitats are subject to little natural disturbance, which unfortunately makes them particularly sensitive to human pressures. Recovery could take decades.

This is not only bad news for our marine wildlife, but also the future of our coastal heritage and fisheries.

We have an opportunity to turn the future for the Irish Sea around. The government has committed to completing an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas in UK seas.

Three important areas of muddy habitat were proposed as Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in 2012, however, designation has been postponed to date due to concerns from the fishing industry on their management. These are the ‘missing links’ without which we will be unable to complete the network of marine protected areas that we so desperately need to secure the future of our seas.

This is why the Marine Mudness campaign has been launched - to urge the government to protect these vital muddy habitats as soon as possible.

What’s in Cheshire’s Living Seas?

In Cheshire, we have two of the richest marine environments in the region – the Dee and Mersey estuaries, which flow into the Irish Sea and are teeming with marine life. There are remarkable habitats and species to be found beneath the waves and along the Cheshire and Wirral coastline.

Saltmarsh: Large areas of saltmarsh, or Atlantic salt meadows, are found on both the Dee and Mersey estuaries at Parkgate Marsh, Frodsham Marsh and Wigg Island. Saltmarshes serve as vital high-tide roosting areas for overwintering birds and provide natural flood defence. Spring tides flush rodents and water rails off the marsh, bringing hunting hen harriers, peregrine falcons and short-eared owls close to the shore.

Rock pools: For many of us, exploring rock pools is the first time we encounter what lies beneath the waves and learn more about the wildlife found on our rocky shores, such as beadlet anemones, which look like little blobs of dark red jelly, and common limpets, which act like mini lawnmowers in the rocks and reefs.

Grey seals: Up to 700 seals ‘haul out’ to rest on the West Hoyle Sandbank at low tide, making for an impressive sight. The Latin name for grey seal, Halichoerus grypus, means ‘hook-nosed sea pig’ and its elongated nose (also likened to a dog’s nose) is the best way to tell the difference between grey seals and the smaller common seals which are also occasionally spotted here. Pay a visit to the deeper rocky northern side of Hilbre Island where the seals regularly ‘spy hop’ to investigate visitors.

Cheshire Wildlife Trust will lead two walks to Hilbre Island this month, on August 12 and 26. Places are limited so booking is essential. Go to cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/whats-on.

Cockles: Estuarine mud is twice as fertile as the richest farmland (just one square metre has the same calorific content as 16 Mars bars) and is home to huge numbers of invertebrates, including razor clams, ragworms and cockles. In 2012, the Dee Estuary Cockle Fishery was only the second common cockle fishery in the world to be awarded a Marine Stewardship Council certificate of sustainability. Making sustainable seafood choices is a great way to support our Living Seas.

Ocean giants: A group of bottlenose dolphins sighted in Liverpool Bay in 2013 was identified as a member of the Welsh Cardigan Bay population, which just goes to show just how mobile our marine mammal visitors can be. Minke whales, bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises can be spotted from Hilbre Island so if you pay a visit, be sure to keep your eyes on the waves.

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