A Focus On Nature

A Focus On Nature, Issues in conservation

Bloggings Of A Not So Little Mermaid – Jess Mead

Now, before I start I am going to be honest and let you know that blogging is not something I do with much frequency or aptitude so bear with me! However, when I was asked to write a blog about the project I am working on and therefore one of the many awesome marine habitats we have here in the UK I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tell you all about how amazing our marine life really is. So here it goes……

The UK marine environment is INCREDIBLE! We are lucky enough to have some of the most productive waters in the world right on our doorstep but the beauty and variety of animals living in them is often totally overlooked by most of us land-dwellers. The inaccessibility of these underwater worlds to most people has meant that their childhood memories and connections to the sea end with a paddle in knee deep water on a sandy beach after an ice cream and a portion of cod and chips. But there’s so much more to marine life than how delicious people think it is!

I am lucky enough to have volunteered on marine conservation projects across the world since I graduated in 2011 but the marine life we have closer to home is my real passion and my current job allows me to spread the love so I count myself lucky. I am the Weymouth project officer for the Community Seagrass Initiative (CSI) – a Heritage Lottery funded project run by the National Marine Aquarium and project partners aiming to raise awareness of seagrass habitats in South West England.

As part of the project we’re working with volunteer scuba divers to monitor 19 different seagrass beds between Weymouth in Dorset and Looe in Cornwall. The idea was to get divers involved in marine science; giving them the opportunity to use their hobby for good and teaching them underwater surveying and ID skills in exchange for their time and the data they collect for us. Our volunteers don’t need any prior scientific skills or knowledge, so the opportunity is there for as many people as possible and it gives divers a chance to explore a habitat that many of them are unfamiliar with. After our first diving season over 200 volunteers have carried out around 300 diver days, have surveyed all 19 beds and have found 3 Biodiversity Action Plan Species: a fan mussel (Atrina fragilis) and 2 stalked jellyfish. No seahorses yet though! We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for these protected species during our monitoring in 2016 as seagrass is the primary habitat for these little critters.

We’re also working with kayakers and sailors in the area. They help us map areas of seagrass as well as record water clarity close to seagrass beds which is one of the main factors responsible for seagrass decline.

The feedback we have had from our volunteers has been overwhelmingly positive. Even those divers that normally prefer looking at rusty shipwrecks or diving to extreme depths have really loved monitoring squishy stuff in shallow waters. This project offers people opportunities for them to give back to an environment that has given them so much joy over the years and it’s so lovely for us to see more and more people appreciating a habitat that is so important for coastal communities as well as the animals that live there.

Millions of people worldwide obtain their protein from animals that live in seagrass. In the UK juvenile pollack, plaice and herring use the cover created by seagrass as a nursery, scallops need to settle on the leaves of seagrass when they are too small to survive on open sands and cuttlefish lay their eggs on seagrass. A patch of seagrass roughly the size of a football pitch can support up to a staggering 40,000 fish. This vital role in the life cycle of many fish means that seagrass is essential for supporting the UK fishing industry. The beautiful South West coast also attracts thousands of visitors every year who come to enjoy the sheltered sandy coves and bays (prime spots for seagrass). This is why our work in the wider community is also vitally important.

During the 3 year project we will be running public events using an underwater robot to explore seagrass beds within the project area. The camera will beam back live footage to a screen on the quayside to give people a window into an otherwise unseen world. We’ve already had people visit our events that have said “I’ve walked past here every day for years and I never knew all that was under there!” which just goes to show how important our work is. We’ve also got permanent and travelling exhibits to help us reach as many visitors to the area as possible. One of my favourite parts of the job is all the schools outreach we do. We’ll be engaging with 19,000 school children through assemblies and online lessons to show them the wonders of the underwater world that it right on their doorstep. A part of the CSI that everyone with an internet connection can get involved with is our Zooniverse project. Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research and our project means that people can help us find out more about seagrass habitats in the South West without getting their feet wet, by helping us to analyse photos from our diver surveys (click on the Seagrass Explorer tab at the top of the website to get involved- absolutely no marine knowledge necessary). All these activities help to spread the word about the importance of seagrass. The more people that have positive and memorable experiences with this environment the more people will care about it and want to protect it- and that’s my mission!

If anyone wants to find out more about the CSI you can visit our website at www.csi-seagrass.co.uk or look us up on Facebook. Equally, if you know any divers, sailors, kayakers, teachers or any other interested parties just point them in our direction!

Jess Mead is a keen diver and Marine Biology graduate currently employed by the National Marine Aquarium to Coordinate the Community Seagrass Initiative in Weymouth, Dorset. Her previous role was a Marine Conservation Trainee at Dorset wildlife Trust working at the Kimmeridge Marine Centre and before that she volunteered on various conservation projects across the world.