Humpback whales and other vital marine species are recovering in the UK

Some good news to end the year with

The Wildlife Trust’s 2021 Marine Review, compiled by the grassroots foundation’s Living Seas team, recorded 17 sightings of humpback whales in the UK in 2021, bringing the total sightings recorded since 2019 to an incredible 75. The increased numbers have been attributed to populations recovering after bans on commercial whaling came into effect.

Matt Slater, marine conservation officer for Cornwall Wildlife Trusts, said:

“Only a few years ago, it would have been extremely rare to see a humpback whale around the UK. But it looks like they are chasing big shoals of sardines that are now present around our shores. It is magnificent to see these creatures up close.”

Rare sightings of other species around the country have also brought hope, with White-beaked dolphins seen off the coast of Essex for the first time in 20 years and Moray Firth bottlenose dolphins recorded at Weymouth Bay on the south coast of England for the first time.

Some get stranded, some seem to be lost

In 2021 in Cornwall alone, more than 170 cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and 247 seals were stranded, many injured by fishing activities, whilst marine creatures usually found many miles away also found their way to UK shores. One such visitor included an arctic walrus, affectionally nicknamed Wally, who attracted crowds of spectators as he toured around the coast, ending up at The Isles of Scilly where the Wildlife Trust made a pontoon he could safely rest on. A second walrus was seen off Northumberland and around the Shetland Isles.

Human activity causing problems

However, The Wildlife Trusts have also issued warnings that human activity is still disrupting marine life and putting precious species at risk.

An increase in water-based recreational activities, such as the use of personal watercraft and motorboats, can make it hard for marine life to cope, with many people unaware of the precautions they should be taking so as not to disturb or injure wildlife.

Peter Tinsley, Marine Policy & Evidence Manager, Dorset Wildlife Trust, says:

“Anchoring in protected areas can harm delicate reefs and other sensitive habitats. While the ships have usually responded to requests to move, we found that often they were not aware of the marine protected areas that they should be avoiding.”

Positive actions

This last year saw landmark legislation passed to restore kelp, which provides feeding and nursery grounds for molluscs, shrimp, and cuttlefish. The new bylaw protects 304 km² of seabed from fishing with bottom-towed gear, allowing fragile habitats to recover. While in Sussex, the Kelp Restoration Project aims to restore a vast 200km² of kelp.

There has been good news for shellfish too. 100,000 native oysters were introduced in Spurn Point Yorkshire in 2021, and 700 tonnes of stone and shell was added to the Blackwater estuary to create habitat for oysters to settle. Left undisturbed, oysters form complex 3D reefs, providing habitat for young fish and crabs. They also improve water quality; one oyster can filter over 140 litres of water a day.

Read more about the highs and lows for UK marine wildlife in 2021 in The Wildlife Trusts Marine Review.

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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (weareearthcollective.com), and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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