The Potential Issues of Wildlife Tagging

A fin cuts through the choppy waters and you feel your breath catch in your throat. A shiver runs down your spine as you watch the huge body encircle your boat – a flash of white lining the deep grey. Some people back away, seemingly scared of the giant shark but you can’t help but watch as she calmly passes by, oblivious to the emotions she’s triggered above her. She’s stunning, a mighty apex predator stalking the ocean. A quick flick of her powerful tail and she’s gone, sinking back into the deep waters leaving nothing but a splash of white water and memories in your mind. You won’t forget this.

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Sharks, they are mysterious, they are often elusive and they provoke many feelings from awe and wonder to fear and loathing. Some people are fascinated and some people are scared, which is often attributed to their fearsome (and false) reputation portrayed in the media. However, what is undeniable is just how important they are to the oceanic ecosystem. As a top predator, sharks are vital in ensuring that food-chains remain healthy by keeping fish populations at the optimum level. If the shark population was to collapse, it is highly likely that these well managed food chains would collapse with them. With no sharks to pick off the weak and vulnerable, fish shoals would weaken, important habitats may be overgrazed with no sharks to feed on turtles, and coral ecosystems would become unstable. All in all, sharks are not just important; they are vital.

However, sharks are facing an uncertain future and if they are, so are we. Increases in commercial fishing, habitat destruction, being caught as accidental by-catch, and proposed culls all threaten their survival. Many species are already listed as vulnerable, threatened or near extinction including the whale shark and the great hammerhead which is why so many researchers and scientists are working hard to bring them back from the edge. So how are they doing it?

Tagging is a vital tool in conservation and one that is proving to be incredibly useful in terms of shark protection. By attaching a small tag to a shark’s dorsal fin, researchers are able to discover more about the behaviour of sharks along with their distribution and movement without causing any pain. The results can then be used to highlight key areas for protection as well as assessing the success of already established marine protected zones along with the likelihood of sharks coming into contact with humans. The tracking of sharks, although generally well monitored, can nevertheless be accompanied by some very unwelcome and unanticipated issues.

In a recent paper published in the online journal ‘Conservation Biology’, Professor Steven J Cook and his team highlight the issues faced by researchers as public awareness of tagging methods increases. Whilst the team recognised just how much of a positive impact tagging has had when it comes to learning more about the secretive lives of wildlife and how to protect them, they also pointed out that the more people become aware of the practice, the more they seem to want to get involved. This involvement can then threaten important research.

When tags are attached to animals, their locations are trackable and very often this can be in real time. When used for research this is ideal, but if used by other people, such information can then be used to harm the animals; this was seen in the tracking of great white sharks in Australia. In order to help with the planning of various conservation zones, sharks in Western Australia were tagged and monitored. However, the data were also accessed by the agency who had provided the researchers with their tagging permits and it was then used to help track and kill the sharks to limit supposed human/ shark interaction. This was certainly not what the data collected were intended to be used for.

Other threats facing both the research and the tagged animals include members of the public using equipment for purposes other than research, such as photography or simply for watching wildlife.  Constant interaction with humans may change the animals’ behaviour and therefore the important research could be influenced. Likewise, there is also the risk that the research will be identically disrupted and disturbed with devastating consequences. As was suggested in the paper, the deployment of a large number of tags which could interfere with the receiver could be used to affect the data and could ultimately put the animals at risk. It is not necessarily known why this may occur, but there is always the potential for this to happen and with the practice of tagging proving to be such an important step in conservation, it cannot hurt to be prepared.

So, there are clearly risks when it comes to tagging sharks and other animals but what can be done about it?

According to Cooke and his team, there are a number of things that must be considered when it comes to monitoring tagging and its potential exploitation. These include developing clear and concise guidelines in terms of who is allowed access to the data, what kind of data is being collected, and how it will be used. It has also been suggested that there should be more done in terms of the public. For example, there needs to be a system put in place that limits members of the public from using equipment that can interfere with the research. It is also important to inform more people of the reasons why tagging is being used then to give them a platform to voice their concerns.  By doing these things and putting certain instructions in place, it is hoped that any worries and issues can be overcome without putting the wildlife and the research at risk. People will not have to go to extreme measures to get their point across and data may not be abused and used for non-research purposes. Ultimately, however, there is currently very little in terms of how researchers should react to tagging problems and concerns and so if any of these suggestions are implemented, it is certainly a step forward to stamping out tagging exploitation.

With so many increasing threats facing sharks and other animals today, it is incredibly important that work to conserve these beautiful creatures continues. Tagging provides clear and concise data which allows for the creation and implementation of conservation zones, marine protected areas, animal movements, habitats and even death rates. It is a remarkable instrument in the conservation toolbox, and so it is hoped that these small steps forward will become huge leaps in reducing these inadvertent consequences.

We need to save our wildlife and not abuse it.


The Rising Tide Of Technology

As you look to your left, huge shoals of silvery fish shoot past followed closely by a toothy predator. On your right, seabirds fill the air as a huge mouth opens and breaks the surface in an explosion of white foam. Dolphins surround your boat and you can hear their clicks and whistles as they leap excitedly through the waves. It is quite a challenge to keep up with everything as every time you look in a different direction, something else seems to appear out of nowhere. It’s frantic, busy and very exhilarating.

Our oceans are teeming with life and it goes without saying that in a world facing so many different threats, it is vital that we do what we can to monitor and protect it. But, with so much going on, how do marine scientists and conservationists manage to do so?

For many years, scientists have turned to the skies. In order to monitor population abundance and the distribution of different species, they have been conducting aerial surveys. By flying a team in a light aircraft across a set transect line with a specific height and speed, they note down the location and number of animals in a certain area. In doing so, they are then able to calculate how healthy a population is, determine the best habitat for them as well as understanding the best potential ways to conserve them. However, although incredibly useful, aerial surveys also have their drawbacks. There is, for example, the cost of using an aircraft and employing a team of at least 5 scientists as well as the time it takes to conduct each survey. The risk of human error in inputting the data is also possible problem. In such an active environment with the pressure of getting it right, is there a better way to monitor our marine life?

According to many scientists there is; their answer is drones.

In recent years there has been what seems like an exponential rise in the use and accessibility of drone technology both for recreational and for scientific use. From the cheaper options right up to the most expensive professional hexacopters, there really does appear to be a drone for everyone, including marine scientists and conservationists.

Many scientists believe that by using drones to conduct aerial surveys, they are able to tackle many of the problems facing traditional aerial surveys. They are not only able to eliminate the high cost, they are also able to rule out the potential risks human aerial teams face. A study conducted in 2003 highlighted that light aircraft crashes were the top killer of field scientists. By sending up a drone instead of a human, this risk is abolished.

As well as risk removal, drones are also better able to capture natural behaviour.  Less intrusive than aircraft and perhaps even mistaken for birds, as a result they are more likely to be able to record more detailed and accurate data. So, drones seem like an ideal way to capture and record visual marine population data, but what else can they achieve?

Ocean Alliance, a not for profit conservation organisation, are not only using drones to collect aerial images of cetaceans, they are also collecting genetic information. They designed a drone called the “Snotbot” which is able to collect samples of the liquid exhaled through whales’ blowholes. With sample trays installed on the drone’s base, it is hovered above a surfacing whale and catches the spray. This is then used to learn more about the biological information of different species in different locations. Not only does this include their DNA, it also contains stress hormones, pregnancy hormones and microbiomes which can tell us a lot about the health of the species. To be able to capture such an insight into the lives of these whales would usually entail obtaining a blood sample. Having the opportunity to gather such information without causing the animals any of the stress that comes with conducting blood tests, is certainly a more practical and worthwhile method.

The information gathered by “Snotbot” is being used by Professor Scott Baker at Oregon State University who is adding it to the 35 years worth of identity, age, environmental issues and health data from 3,000 whales which he and his team has collected. He believes that by using drones to gather information in this way, we will be able to discover more about the impact humans have upon marine life and possibly even find out other ways in which humans affect different species.

Of course it is not just cetacean species that drones can be used to monitor; recent studies into shark populations have also utilised this technology. Researchers from the Florida International University have been using them to monitor shark and ray abundance and measure the impact these species are having upon tourism in the area via the use of high resolution video. By doing so, they have discovered more about the populations in previously difficult-to-access locations. Interestingly, they also found higher number of animals in certain areas than had previously been recorded using other more traditional methods demonstrating just how inaccurate these can be.

Drones have also been used by other charities and research organisations to further their knowledge and research. Gathering Arctic atmospheric data in order to help further understanding of how sea ice breaks and melts, studying nesting behaviours of Olive Ridley turtles in Costa Rica, tracking manatee populations and even to helping fight the issue of illegal fishing in Belize, this technology is becoming invaluable.

How is Sea Watch using drones to support their research?

In August 2015, Sea Watch received a grant from Environment Wales which allowed us to purchase some new equipment to help with our research and that included our drone “Shark Bait”. In the past, we have relied solely upon boat/ land based teams along with fin photography to identify individuals and behaviours within the local bottlenose dolphin, porpoise and seal populations. Whilst we have been able to build up extensive identification records along with the animals’ abundance, distribution, behaviour, interaction and group dynamics, the use of our drone has allowed us to gain a much deeper insight into their lives.

“Shark Bait” allows us to approach dolphins from above meaning that we are able to gain a much better view of their behaviour, something which can be difficult to achieve with a low eye level on a boat. With the ability to record and photograph the animals using the drone, we are also able to keep track of individuals and their relationships with each other. This is having a significant impact upon our research and is helping us to learn more about our wonderful local wildlife.

Aerial technology is proving to be a vital step forward in the world of marine conservation. As with anything, there are always issues. Drones, for example, can be difficult to fly in extreme weather, can be easily crashed and in many areas it is compulsory to have a license. However, they also provide a cheaper and less risky option in the world of research. In a watery world threatened by climate change, poaching and so many other important issues any progression in conservation is warmly welcomed. Whether it is discovering more about the species inhabiting the ocean, finding new ways to monitor abundance and populations or monitoring the effects humans have on the environment, technology is paving the way in conservation and we are embracing it.

Killer Whales And The Menopause

In the freezing cold waters off the coast of Canada, tall black fins slide effortlessly through the waves. The sound of tail and fin slapping echoes as the killer whales pass by, competing with the noise of camera shutters as buttons are pressed furiously, their owners desperate to capture such a magical moment. Every now and again, a head pops up as though the whales are watching the people as the people watch them. All of a sudden a whole body leaps through the waves and crashes back with a tremendous splash sending the camera shutters into a frantic blur. Gasping and cheering fills the air as the orcas head off for a day of hunting, feeding and socialising leaving only footprints on the surface and incredible memories in the minds of those watching.

Orcas are incredible animals and the chance to experience something like this is on many people’s bucket lists. Watching them swim so elegantly through the water, putting on fabulous acrobatic displays of power is awe inspiring and you might struggle to see what we have in common with them apart from being mammals. But, did you know, that we actually share something quite significant? The menopause.

The menopause is an evolutionary and biological condition experienced by females. It marks the end of their reproduction and occurs when the ovaries stop releasing eggs each month and menstruation ceases. The question is, why does this happen in killer whales?

According to some people, the menopause is simply an accident in biology. It occurred at some stage during evolution and has simply not yet disappeared. Others, however, believe that there is considerable evidence to suggest that it is a trait that evolved for a particular reason. One of the most fascinating suggestions for this is the idea of the “granny effect”, a hypothesis first proposed in 1966. The “granny effect” suggests that in order to aid their genetic survival, older females no longer bear children and instead focus on helping to support and raise their grandchildren. By doing so they give further generations a higher chance of reaching adulthood and therefore a higher chance of the survival of their lineage. However, whilst useful in determining family dynamics and genetic success in killer whales, it does not explain why they cease reproduction completely.

A recently published study by an international research team led by Professor Darren Croft of the University of Exeter, reveals that it is the relationship mother killer whales have with their daughters that proves to be essential when determining why they go through the menopause. Croft and his team studied two pods of whales off the north west coast of the US and Canada and used data collected for 43 years by the Centre for Whale Research and Fisheries and Oceans Canada in order to discover why. They looked at killer whales who were approaching the menopause but were still breeding along with their daughters who were also breeding. It was found that the older females’ calves were 1.7 times more likely to die than their younger daughters’ calves. The older whales lose the calving competition.

So, as a result of coming last in the race of reproduction, it appears as though rather than putting themselves and the future of the pod at risk, the older whales cease breeding and focus upon their grandchildren instead. Yes, they may lose out on continuing their gene pool through their own young but their contribution is incredibly important when it comes to ensuring it survives through generations.

Croft’s study revealed that post-menopausal whales find themselves with a “grandmother” role in the pod, hence the “granny effect”. They are often the leaders of the pods, they are more likely to be than adult males, and are vital in ensuring their family’s survival. It is believed that they know where the best places to fish are, using accumulated knowledge. When the group is desperate to find food, they know exactly where to go. All in all, post-breeding whales are not “past it”, they are crucial.

The menopause is certainly no evolutionary mistake. This new research is not only important in learning more about how it evolved within killer whales, it is also fascinating in learning more about humans. We too continue to survive long after our reproduction cycle ends. We can also be said to take on more caring and “grandmotherly” roles within our family groups. Many tribes, much like the whales, rely on previous knowledge and experience to understand where to find food, places to avoid and how to live through natural events like floods. We have a lot more in common with killer whales than we think.

As the first test of mother/daughter conflict in a non human species, Croft and his team have significantly contributed to our understanding of this particular whale species and post reproduction. Although they are hoping to carry out further research into these relationships using drones, it is most definitely indispensable knowledge aiding our understanding of killer whale survival in an increasingly turbulent world.

Interacting in Captivity- Trip Advisor Stops Selling Tickets To Interactive Captivity Attractions

As the bright orange sun slowly rose above the horizon, hundreds of fins burst out of the deep blue water. Surrounding our little boat and leaping through the waves, dusky dolphins and common dolphins paired up to deliver what was possibly one of the most incredible acrobatic performances I’d ever seen. For the next 2 hours, we found ourselves hypnotised as more and more dolphins seemed to appear, throwing themselves out of the water, in sync with each other.

Whilst I photographed the chaos, it made me think about the animals trapped in tanks being forced to perform for people and even forced to interact. Is there a place for it in this day and age and what is being done to end the suffering?

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In October this year, the popular travel website Trip Advisor announced a huge change to their policy regarding animal attractions. As of early 2017, they will no longer be selling tickets to places which allow and encourage visitors to come into contact with wild animals in captivity. This news comes following an 18-month campaign organised and led by the World Animal Protection group who wanted to not only point out the damaging effects of such attractions on wildlife but also to stop Trip Advisor from making a profit from them. Clearly this is a step forward. In a world where being able to get so close to tigers, elephants, dolphins and other amazing creatures is so often unregulated, something certainly needed to done. However, is this change likely to have a positive effect on the issue of tourism and animal welfare or could it simply be that they are using this stance purely to please?

There are many issues that arise when animals are forced into situations where tourists pay to touch, stroke and ride them. Dolphins, for example, are very often kept in small, cramped conditions and often suffer from psychological and physical conditions which severely impact their life. Many of them have been snatched from their families in the wild and now find themselves alone, in pain and unable to behave naturally. Imagine what it must be like minding your own business and then suddenly being grabbed, flung in a very confined space and then, whilst you are feeling lost and alone, being told that you have to put on a show. I know I couldn’t do it but these animals do not have the choice. They are highly intelligent creatures suffering for the sake of entertainment and it is not acceptable.

A dusky dolphin in Kaikoura, New Zealand
A dusky dolphin in Kaikoura, New Zealand

So how will the change to Trip Advisor make a difference?

It only takes a quick look at Trip Advisor and its 690,000 listed attractions to see the huge influence it has upon the travel industry. From museums and restaurants, hotels and hostels to exotic destinations, places that little bit closer to home and even flights, it seems to have everything you need to make decisions for your next trip. For me personally, I found it to be incredibly helpful when it came to planning my trip around New Zealand and even when trying to choose where to eat out where I live now. With this in mind, I have no doubt that by stopping selling tickets to these ‘wild animal experiences’ will at the very least make people more aware of the damaging effects of such places. Perhaps by making it a little bit more difficult to incorporate such experiences into their travel places, people will think twice.

Trip Advisor has also said that they will be launching an educational portal called “PAW”. Supported and developed by animal welfare groups, this will be linked to all the animal attractions listed on the site and will provide information surrounding certain experiences highlighting the various different issues. This, I’m sure, will also prove to be vital in terms of educating people about animal tourism and will hopefully have a significant effect.

There is, however, some concern that whilst this change in policy is likely to have an impact on smaller, unregulated companies in areas often reliant upon such tourism, the larger businesses like SeaWorld are unlikely to take much of a hit. For example, while you will no longer be able to use Trip Advisor to pay to interact with wild animals, there is nothing stopping you purchasing tickets to visit them in captivity. This means that for the whales and dolphins trapped in tiny tanks, they are and will be suffering for the foreseeable future.  Of course anything is possible, though, and at a time when people are now more aware than ever of the negativity surrounding the release of ‘Blackfish’, it might not be long until captivity attractions find themselves heading in the same direction as wild animal contact experiences and bloodsports.

jennicatpink(2007), Swimming with dolphins
jennicatpink(2007), Swimming with dolphins

In a world where the internet plays a huge role in travel, I firmly believe that Trip Advisor’s decision to stop selling tickets to animal attractions will have a major impact on this aspect of the industry. Wherever you go in the world, you will very often find that many places proudly display a Trip Advisor sticker showing that they can be found on the site which, to me, illustrated just how important the reviews are to them. For that to be questioned or even taken away would have a significant impact not only on the company but on this people deciding to pay a visit.Yes, some can argue that such places encourage people to learn more about saving species but at the price of a life, I’m sure there are other effective ways. To argue that people need to be able to touch animals in order to want to save them just does not seem right. There are far better ways to do it.

Getting close to a dolphin in captivity is no comparison to getting close to one in the wild on their terms. They seem to exude strength, power and positivity. This is how we need to see them, trapped in tiny enclosures is not. For the tigers sedated so curious travellers can lie down and stroke them, for the elephants beaten with sticks as they are trained to carry people and for the many other suffering animals, Trip Advisor’s policy change is certainly a good start and something that I hope will continue.

“Live Fast, Die Young”…Or Live Slow, Die Old in The Case of The Greenland Shark

It’s 1815 and the world is rapidly changing. The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia has thrown 55 million tons of sulphur dioxide hurtling 20 miles into the sky. Combining with hydroxide gas it has created a thick cloud which has wrapped itself around the world. The temperature has dropped by 2 degrees celsius and crop failures, droughts, riots and snowstorms plague the population. It is a dark and difficult time. 100 years later and once again the planet is in the throes of a global catastrophe; World War I. In the years since the volcano eruption, the world has witnessed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the start of the Californian gold rush in 1849, Thomas Edison’s practical light invention of 1879 and now faces another humanitarian challenge.

Whilst all of this is happening, a shape drifts through the ocean, silent and mysterious and unbeknownst to so many who walk above. It has lived through it all and will continue to survive through the sinking of the Titanic, the millennium and 9/11. It is a Greenland shark.


The Greenland shark is a slow swimming, elusive fish inhabiting the dark, freezing waters of the North Atlantic. One of the most poorly understood and studied species of shark, it’s secretive life is still being discovered, discussed and delved into.

In August 2016, scientists revealed that the Greenland shark is now thought to be the “longest living vertebrate known on Earth” taking the title from the previous record holder, a 211 year old Bowhead whale. Using the method of radiocarbon dating, researchers examined and studied 28 specimens who had sadly perished as by catch, and discovered that one female shark could have been aged between 272 and 512 years old. With the majority of sharks living to an average of between 30 and 50 years old, this unprecedented information is not only incredible but vital in the exploration of the species. But why has it not been discovered until now?

To age a shark, scientists examine the vertebrae by sectioning it and looking at the concentric bands. As the fish ages, calcified tissue forms rings on the back bones which, just like the rings of a tree, can be counted to provide an estimate of it’s age. This method works well for bony fish however the Greenland shark is soft, it has no bony structures and no deposited calcific growths. So, to counteract this problem, researchers have instead focused their attention on the eyes. The Greenland shark’s eye lenses are very unusual as they contain a special protein that builds up over time, the earliest layers having formed when the young shark was developing. By analysing by monitoring the levels of carbon affected by radioactive decay, it is possible to determine the age of the shark. Utilising various different time stamps helped to ascertain a probable age by indicating whether the shark was present during certain events. For example, the detonation of atomic bombs in the early 1960s increased the carbon levels in the ocean and so the scientists were able to work out whether the specimens studied had been born before or after this had taken place.

The resulting statistics indicated that out of the 28 animals studied, 25 of them were born prior to the early 1960s suggesting that they were over 50 years old. Further analysis involving combining this data with previously established estimations of the the species’ slow growth rate pointed to the largest of the studied sharks, a five metre long female, as being approximately 392 years old. It should be noted that the possibility of ages of this particular shark ranges from around 272 years to   512 years but nevertheless, this is an fascinating discovery and an amazing feat. Even if her age puts her at 272 years, the very bottom of the predicted age scale, she would still have been swimming in our oceans in the early 18th century. So many things were happening in the world above her and to me, it’s amazing to think that there could have been sharks who were present then and still are now.

Of course there are always doubts when it comes to research like this and further in-depth study is often required to set suggestions in stone. According to Clive Trueman, associate professor in marine ecology at the University of Southampton, for example, the fact that the central proteins in the eye lens form using nutrients passed to the pup from the mother could imply that the carbon present wasn’t in fact as a result of direct contact but came from the gestational period. The analysed shark may simply have acquired it secondarily and so perhaps is not as old as is thought. Either way, this recent information sheds light on a very poorly understood and mysterious animal and even with error, it can be presumed that this truly is the longest living vertebrate in the world.

So, what does this information mean for the Greenland shark species?

Well, it is already known that female Greenland sharks only reach sexual maturity when they reach approximately four metres in length and so this data implies that they have to be around 150 years old before being able to have young. With the species only growing around 1cm per year, this undoubtedly means that if anything was to happen to this slow growing population, it would have a devastating impact. Julius Nielson, marine biologist and the lead author of the Greenland shark longevity study, suggests that when you look at the distribution of sharks throughout the North Atlantic, in terms of size it is difficult and rare to discover juveniles, pups and even females ready for reproduction. Many of the sharks present will take another century to sexually mature which clearly implies that the heavy fishing the species suffered from prior to World War II had and it is continuing to have a significant impact. There are just not enough older animals present in the oceans to rapidly repopulate and sadly the Greenland shark currently finds it’s self on the IUCN’s “near threatened” list. Yes, of course there is possibility that there could be a larger unknown population of sharks hiding from human eyes and thriving but we cannot be sure and need to do what we can to learn more and protect them.

The Greenland shark is a unique and mysterious species, hiding in the darkest depths of the ocean ,avoiding the media spotlight. It is not a species basking in the limelight after having been awarded the title of the “World’s Longest Living Vertebrate” and there is still so much more to discover about it. We’ve all heard the quote “live fast, die young” and the Greenland shark must have decided to do the very opposite. It lives slow, drifting through the waters growing at a very restricted pace and dies old, possibly at over 400 years old. It is a truly fascinating animal and, despite the unpredictability of the data results, this recent study has inspired me to discover more about it. If this research can capture people’s imaginations and encourage further interest in such an unusual animal as well as the diversity of our ocean, then I personally believe that it’s been an success and I look forward to future results.


Image: NOAA Photo Library (2013)


Industry and the Environment; Coastal Development in the Moray Firth

As the fins sliced through the choppy, current-swirled waters they were met with an eruption of excited gasps from the expectant crowds. After waiting on the shore for what felt like, and probably was, hours, our patience had finally paid off. The dolphins had arrived! Seemingly showing off their incredible hunting skills and prowess as they launched themselves out of the water and hurtled through the air, it was hard for me not to feel a sense of awe. In fact, it was equally as hard for me not to appreciate just how lucky we all were as we watched wild and free bottlenose dolphins, metres from us on the pebbly shores of Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth.

Reaching out to the open waters of the North Sea in the north east of Scotland, the Moray Firth is a vast stretch of water renowned for its rich and diverse wildlife and stunning vistas. With over 100 natural heritage sites designated to preserve and conserve, it is one of the best places in Britain to spot ospreys and otters, seabirds and seals, basking sharks, porpoises, whales and of course the ever charismatic bottlenose dolphin. An estimated 195 individuals can be found here and, like the resident dolphins of Cardigan Bay, they are just so captivating! Whilst I was in the area last month, I found myself spending the majority of the time with one eye on the water just in case a sneaky fin appeared. I managed to see so many of the wonderful creatures that call the Moray Firth home and it was amazing to see the richness of life living in and around the waters of the UK. However, it is not just wildlife that inhabits these waters; they also provide a very important location for industry and coastal development.

For the past 8,000 years, agriculture including fishing has played a key role in the development of the Moray Firth and trade in sea food has in turn resulted in the birth of many towns, along these shores and supported the communities of people who live there. From fishing and shipping through to more recent human enterprises such as oil exploration, tourism and renewable energy developments, these waters support a wide range of activities and contribute heavily to the Scottish economy. I saw just how much of a dominating presence such activities have in the local area during a trip along the coast to the little town of Cromarty, and the port of Invergordon. Overshadowed by oil platforms looming out from a thick layer of fog whilst ships passed by cutting through the water like scissors through paper, I felt dwarfed by the giant structures and it was humbling to see how much of an impact human development has had. However, has this come at the expense of the local wildlife?

In previous articles I have discussed the impact of shipping upon cetaceans, and in the Moray Firth, there is no doubt that the increasingly noisy world of coastal development poses a risk to the marine wildlife living there. With the deep waters of the Firth not only being a rich and important feeding ground for the bottlenose dolphins but also providing safe passage for ships, there is the potential for catastrophic injuries caused by collisions and noise pollution. Whilst collisions remain a rare occurrence, sadly the same cannot be said for noise.

Noise pollution can have a damaging effect upon cetaceans as they rely upon sound to navigate, find food, and communicate. In areas with heavy shipping traffic, there are concerns that if the animals vocalisations are drowned out then they may be unable to feed, leading to starvation and they could even suffer painful physical injuries to their ears. In 2012, a study was carried out by the Universities of Aberdeen and Bath to investigate the impact of ships in the Moray Firth on the resident dolphins. Two locations, Chanonry Point and The Sutors of Cromarty in the Inner Firth, were selected, both locations known to be important feeding grounds. Equipment was set up to record vessel noise and marine mammal vocalisations. At both sites, shipping traffic was proven to be the primary source of noise pollution, However, one was significantly louder than the other. It was determined that whilst such noise was present in the waters, they did not pose a significant threat to the population as they appeared to have become habituated to the noise. There was, however, concern that with the amplitude and frequency of the shipping noise matching that of the dolphins’ communication, there was the possibility that they could be drowned out and therefore unable to vocalise, interact and even fish. A small risk, perhaps, but still an important threat. It is not just shipping noise that presents a risk to cetaceans in north-east Scotland, however; oil and gas exploration also contribute.

Twenty-two kilometres out from the coast in the middle of the Moray Firth lies the Beatrice Field, an exploitable oilfield discovered in the late 1960s. Oil exploration is, by its nature, a noisy business and so the initial discovery may have had an impact upon the inhabitants of these waters. During the search for oil and gas deposits, seismic surveys are conducted along the sea bed which involves sending out intense low frequency sound bursts. Like vessel disturbance, such bursts of noise have the capacity to displace mammals and even cause them physical harm. Once oil has been discovered, further noise is created during the installation of pipes and vessels supplying materials. Even at the end of an oil facility’s life, it may continue to cause distress to the local wildlife as explosives are often used to remove equipment and other structures. The current facility at the Beatrice Field is being decommissioned in the near future, and so there may be a further impact on the environment, which will also continue when the recently approved offshore wind farm begins construction.

Oil is a sticky issue and it is not just the potential for noise disturbance posing a threat to marine life. In between watching for dolphins and seals at Chanonry Point, I found myself drawn to a number of signs decorating the nearby fence posts. The posters warned of an application for ship-to-ship transfers at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth offshore as opposed to being securely berthed at the Nigg terminal, where this practice currently takes place. Whilst this would potentially save money by reducing the need to dock, the question is whether this would come at the cost of the local wildlife?

Ship-to-ship transfers allow oil to be passed from one vessel to another and according to the application, 8. 5 million tonnes of it would be transferred each year. Such practices already take place in Scapa Flow in Orkney and, so far, there has been no catastrophic effect. However, it would be naive to assume that there would not be an increased risk of oil spillages if the Moray Firth transfers were given the go ahead. If a major accident was to occur, it could have a devastating impact upon both the people and the creatures that call the area home. Sea birds such as auks, puffins, razorbills and guillemots, cormorants, shags and sea duck, to name but a few could find themselves unable to fly or end up swimming coated in a thick layer of black oil. Marine mammals such as seals could suffer lung ailments or be unable to feed if fish stocks were affected. Even the local people who rely upon the tourist industry could suffer. In an area of natural beauty that is home to a diverse range of wildlife, it seems a shame to put them at risk. There is no doubt that proper procedures would be put in place to limit the risk and to date, ship-to-ship transfers have an excellent safety record. However, the question is, is it worth it?

The Moray Firth is captivating, stunning and awe inspiring. The Moray Firth Partnership exists to support the environmental sustainability, collaborating with locals and businesses to work to protect the diversity of the area. It is a vital organisation in terms of the preservation of the region. In a constantly developing world, we all need to adapt to survive and thrive; we just need to make sure that our gain is not at the loss of our natural world.

When Humans and Animals Collide; Vessel Strikes and Cetaceans

Drifting along the surface of the sea, the whale has very little time to escape. Within moments the ship is upon her.

On the 5th of May this year, an endangered north Atlantic right whale calf was found dead and drifting just off the coast of Cape Cod, USA. According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the calf had not been dead for long and had wounds indicating that a possible cause of death was boat strike. As one of only fourteen reported right whale calves born this year, and one of two which have already passed away this year, it is a devastating and significant loss to an already threatened species. Whilst these results remain in the preliminary stages, there is no doubt that it raises a very important issue – ship collisions are a very, very serious threat to cetaceans around the world.

Boat strikes are a very real and dangerous risk to whales, dolphins and porpoises. They can cause traumatic and disastrous injuries to those involved, from sharp trauma and lacerations to blunt trauma and internal injuries, and can even lead to death. You only have to take a quick look online to see just how many animals suffer horrific injuries after such collisions all over the world. For example, in 2014, the struggling southern right whale population suffered a horrendous loss when a sub-adult was killed, another was injured, and a calf went missing after being struck by a boat in Moreton Island, Australia. A year later in 2015, shocking images surfaced revealing the horrific damage caused to a bottlenose dolphin in Florida when it was hit by a propeller, causing deep and traumatic lacerations down its back. More recently, in May this year, a cruise ship arrived in Alaska with a dead, endangered fin whale draped over its bow, a potential victim of a strike. And closer to home in June this year, the beloved Irish dolphin Fungie of Dingle Bay was spotted sporting a deep wound on his side probably caused by a boat propeller.

Boat strikes are not country specific, they are not vessel specific and they are certainly not species specific.

The question is why do they happen? On a basic level, strikes occur when neither the animal nor the vessel manage to detect each other with enough time to change direction. There are, however, a number of factors which are thought to potentially increase the likelihood of such an incident occurring, both from the perspective of the animal and of the ships, as well as potential geographical issues.

Cetacean Factors

HABITUATION – Ever had a loud clock ticking away constantly? It seems like the loudest thing in the world and yet after a while, the noise simply fades into the background and becomes far less noticeable. This is what may happen with whales and dolphins who reside in high-vessel traffic areas. Whilst the noise may be very distracting to begin with, eventually it can be tuned-out, which means that potentially, a whale may not notice vessels getting closer.

AGE – Just as with human children, calves are more vulnerable than adults and as a result many reported collisions often occur with young cetaceans. This may be because, like babies, they are curious and unaware of the potential danger a vessel poses, as well as the fact that they often need to spend more time on the surface having not yet developed the speed of the adults, and so are more likely to be hit.

Geographical Factors

CONCENTRATED AREAS – Unfortunately, it goes without saying that in areas where there is a high concentration of cetaceans and a high concentration of vessels, there is sadly an increased risk of boat strikes.

Vessel Factors

VISIBILITY- From the perspective of the ship, the larger the vessel the more difficult it is to change course. If a whale was to appear in front of the bow, the time it would take to alter the direction of the ship often means that there is no other choice but to hit the animal.

Think of it like a supermarket trolley; the more empty it is, the easier and quicker it is to move out of the way but the heavier and bulkier it is, the more difficult it is to move, and so it takes a lot longer. Unlike an out-of-control shopping -trolley however, the result of a ship strike is devastating.

These are just a few of the many potential factors affecting the chance of a vessel strike occurring (more can be found here) but it is clear that with so many risk factors, procedures need to work to reduce the effect such strikes have on both the animals and humans.

So what can be done to help?

With boat strikes occurring in oceans around the world, and with whales regularly migrating through different seas and oceans, it is very important that any attempts to reduce the impact that ships are having upon our marine wildlife, are conducted globally. Sadly, there is no clear and concise way of doing this but different steps are being taken to make a significant difference. In 2009, the IWC (International Whaling Commission) established a global ‘ship strikes’ database to keep track of boat/whale impacts. With so many collisions going unreported and even unnoticed, encouraging more people to report strikes is a vital part of learning more about possible strike hotspots, and subsequently contributing to possible solutions. In the same year, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) created a document advising crews on how to minimise the chance of collisions.

In terms of physical adaptations, ideally, the best option would be to completely separate ships and cetaceans with alternative routes. Whilst this has been effective in certain areas, such as the Strait of Gibraltar – a well-known cetacean dense area, increasing boat traffic throughout the world means that the likelihood and practicality of this being an effective global method is slim. A more effective method has been the implementation of speed limits in cetacean hotspots. A few years ago, Sea Watch director, Dr Peter Evans identified key hotspots for fin and sperm whales in NW Europe on behalf of the United Nations Environmental Programme’s international conservation agreement, ASCOBANS. He also mapped the densities of ships so as to determine where conflict was likely to be greatest, and then worked with WWF International to encourage shipping companies to either slow down to ten knots of less or divert around these hotspots.

In certain places, individual practices have also been set up such as those in the United States. Working together, the US Coast Guard and NOAA established a system, the Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems, which requires vessels larger than 300 tonnes who are entering two very well-known north Atlantic right whale habitats, to report to a station. By doing so, they are informed of any potential whales in the area, in the hope that they will be able to avoid them.

Boat strikes are an ongoing and complex problem and one that requires constant research and records to form effective solutions. Education has and always will be an incredibly important aspect and it is vital that this grows in the future. If we continue to increase our ocean activities, then we need to increase what we can do to help. Nothing deserves to suffer.


Image: Craig Hayslip, Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute (2014)

The Silent Killer Strikes

Drifting along the ocean’s currents, I am a silent killer preying on the watery world’s inhabitants, not distinguishing between species or allowing for escape. I am a ghost net, abandoned by my users but I will continue to hunt and I will continue to kill.

The name ghost net is given to any commercial fishing gear either abandoned or accidentally left behind by a vessel. Whilst this could be due to bad weather, mistakes with setting them too high in the water leading to them being cut by propellors, accidental loss or having to be cut free for safety reasons, the outcome is always the same; they become a huge and a potentially deadly risk to all ocean life.

On the 13th June this year, it was reported that a group of dogfish were found entangled and dead in nets off a Plymouth Beach. Photographs taken by Sam Provstgaard Morys, who was out snorkeling at Rame Head, revealed the devastating impact the nets had cast upon the local sea life. The small sharks had become completely ensnared in the fishing gear, with clearly very little chance to escape, which ultimately led to their death by drowning as they were unable to swim. Likely to be females who would have played an important role in the continual survival of the local population. This catastrophic loss prompted the local campaign group ‘Rame Peninsula Beach Care’ to encourage fishermen to inform them of any net loss, so divers have the opportunity to try and retrieve them, and subsequently limit the loss of life. Certainly, this is a vital aspect of marine conservation, and a huge step in reducing the deadly effect of ghost nets, but it is equally important to note the following:

This is not a UK-centric problem; ghost nets are a global crisis.

Accounting for approximately 10% of all marine debris, ghost nets impact our oceans around the world. Often travelling for vast distances on the ocean currents, trapping an insurmountable amount of marine life, it is estimated that around 64,000 tonnes of netting are left each year continuing to trap, maim and kill for a long time after their initial use. Coral reefs, sharks, seals, birds, sea lions, turtles, cetaceans, crustaceans and so many other species are all affected, each in different but equally devastating ways. Whales, for example, may find themselves tangled up in ropes and nets, the thick long-lasting synthetic fibres digging further and further into their bodies. This causes intense pain, and the abandoned gear prevents the whale from feeding and moving properly, severely impacting their life over a considerable amount of time, possibly even years. Seals, on the other hand, may find themselves trapped in nets unable to surface to breathe, panicking whilst they struggle to escape for that much needed breath before succumbing to death by drowning in minutes.

Sadly, it appears as though some species of marine life encounter ghost gear on a regular basis – a sad reflection of the impact that humans are having upon the environment. For example, scars studied on large whale species suggest that entanglement is incredibly common, with an estimated 48-65% of humpback whales living in the Gulf of Maine having experienced entanglement at some stage during their lives. It is heartbreaking to see the impact we are having on these creatures.

So what can be done to help?

As ghost nets are such a widespread issue, it is clear that a general course of action is needed. Several projects around the world have already been established in order to try to reduce ghost gear impacts on wildlife, including the Olive Ridley Project created by Martin Stelfox in the Maldives. Martin, a marine biologist, saw the effect that ghost gear was having upon the marine world after discovering an endangered Olive Ridley turtle entangled in a net and missing its front flippers. In order to try to prevent further unnecessary destruction, he set up the project to train volunteers to report ghost nets, rescue any wildlife, and collect data needed to locate the origin of the nets. In a single year, 140 entangled turtles were recorded along with numerous other species including a sperm whale and four reef manta rays, as well as over 100 ghost nets.

As successful as these projects are, it is important to remember the problems that we face when trying to make a difference. For example, there is still a need for further data collection to establish the impact that ghost netting has both environmentally and economically as it’s still relatively unknown. Whilst some areas have been studied intensively, others have not which means that it is still not necessarily clear which areas are suffering the most. Other issues linked with data collection include the differences in regulations across different countries, such as catch limits and attitudes towards gear disposal, as this makes it hard to compare any results.

Location, as previously mentioned, is another significant problem faced by those studying the impacts of ghost gear. This is because the nets are often caught in currents and drift over vast distances into other ocean territories, impacting those who did not contribute to the issue. This is definitely a problem in Australia, where around 90% of ghost nets drifting into the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north of the country actually originate from Asian waters. In a bid to make a difference, it is obvious that we need to work together globally to be successful in this aim. In 2015, World Animal Protection launched the first cross-sector alliance, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, which brings together people from different sectors with varying ideas to solve the ongoing problem of lost or abandoned fishing gear. It is hoped that by building a worldwide network of people driving for change, the threat of worldwide ghost nets will be reduced.

Another idea for reducing problems caused by drifting nets is the concept of ‘gear marking’, allowing for the identification of nets and other equipment lost at sea. This will be discussed at the Committee of Fisheries in Rome, who are meeting in July 2016. Not only would this mean that gear could be traced back to the perpetrator, but illegal fishing thought to be responsible for a significant part of the ghost net problem, could also be combated.

Despite the challenges faced by those driving for a solution to the problem of lost and abandoned nets and other fishing gear, it appears that we no longer have a choice if we want to retain our amazing marine world and the life it encompasses. On average, in the English Channel and Western Approaches, five nets are lost per year, each measuring c.12 km, with only 50% recovered. Off the coast of Cornwall, a total of 24 km of nets were lost per year and only one third were recovered. Both of these areas are very small, and yet will have such a significant impact on so many things. If this is the case in the UK, then just imagine the damage the entire world is facing. It’s time something changed.

Ghost nets cost our economy from loss of fishing, and to clean up and repair, and they cost the lives of so many marine creatures. They are silent killers and we need to speak up on behalf of the wildlife and the people who suffer. We need to make a change.


Image: Doug Helton , NOAA/NOS/ORR/ERD