Behind the scenes at the Liverpool Bay Marine Life Trust

Tagged common smooth-hound held by Jean Wilson, Head of Biology, Blackpool and Fylde College - photo

Tagged common smooth-hound held by Jean Wilson, Head of Biology, Blackpool and Fylde College - photo by Mathew Clough - Credit: not Archant

The Liverpool Bay coast is home to a wide, and surprising, range of creatures, as Debra Williams reports

Mathew Clough is not a person to sit around waiting for an opportunity when he could be doing something constructive. As a marine biologist looking for work in the Liverpool Bay area, he decided to set up his own marine conservation trust, the Liverpool Bay Marine Life Trust, to further understanding and awareness of what species are in the region.

‘There is a lack of research on species in the local area,’ said Mathew, who now runs through a series of tagging projects, seal photo ID, boat- and land-based cetacean (marine mammals) surveys, and boat trips for members of the public.

‘The trust’s aim is to change this by running boat-based research activities, to find out exactly what species are in our waters. While land-based cetacean surveys are important to help gain a better understanding of numbers in the area, boat-based surveys allow us to ID the individual animals and further understand their life history.’

Mathew charters a boat piloted by an experienced captain who knows the best places to find tope shark, a species which has been declining in the UK and worldwide over the last 75 years, and crucially how to safely approach and handle them without distressing them.

‘The boat enables us to get much closer to the animals and even to tag them so that we can track them and find out more about where they go when they are not in the bay,’ Mathew said. ‘We will also be offering the public the chance to go out on a boat with us and see the marine life – just like the trips they run in other areas of the country. I don’t think people realise what a wealth of species we have in the waters around Liverpool and I am looking forward to raising the public’s awareness, while carrying out essential research at the same time.’

When the weather is poor, the trust can still study shark species such as common smooth-hounds and starry-smooth hounds as these species can be found off the dock walls in Liverpool and close to shore in New Brighton. Many people do not realise that animals up to two metres in length are lurking along the walls of the Albert Dock, right under the noses of unsuspecting locals and tourists – but the trust intends to change this by running summer shark-tagging boat trips for paying customers.

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These six to 10-hour trips will go up to the Ribble Estuary or just off New Brighton, depending on the weather. Last year, people came from around the country to participate, and Mathew hopes the trips will be even more popular this year: ‘The trips offer people the chance to interact with the local wildlife and further scientific research at the same time,’ he said. Last summer, among other sightings, one of the volunteers spotted a minke whale at the mouth of the Mersey; so far this year, 41 harbour porpoise have been seen off the Liverpool coast – with several animals venturing as far down the river as Otterspool – as well as a number further north off the Lancashire coast (the trust gets information from Lancashire-based spotters).

Mathew’s greatest hope now is that the return of salmon to the Mersey, which was the most polluted river in Europe, will attract some of the bigger predatory deep water sharks.

The trust secures the funding it needs to put these plans into action. To donate, go online to Liverpool-bay-marine-life-trust

Sealing the deal

Globally, the grey seal is a declining, threatened species. Around 130,000 animals breed around the UK – that’s 35 per cent of the entire species. So it’s crucial that researchers here carry out as many studies on seal lifestyle and responses to the environment as possible.

These are easily done through photo ID as female grey seals have unique markings, known as a pelage pattern, which remain the same throughout their adult lives.

Mathew wants to expand our knowledge of grey seal activity by linking up three areas – Wales, the Isle of Man and Hilbre/West Hoyle – to ascertain breeding locations and movement between sites to determine whether the three seal populations intermingle. ‘By tracking individual seals, we can find out where they go and whether they mix,’ he said. ‘Once we know where they travel to and from, we can start to better understand an under-studied population of Britain’s largest carnivore within the waters of North West England, aiding our understanding of the region’s ecology.’

Mathew’s vision

Mathew studied marine biology at Bangor University (after missing a year after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and then studied animal behaviour at Queens University of Belfast. With these qualifications, he hoped to make a difference to the marine life throughout the Liverpool Bay area – from the Wirral to Morecambe Bay.

Finding paid employment in this field, however, proved extremely difficult, so in 2012 Mathew started conducting independent land and boat-based research. His research on behalf of the Sea Watch Foundation found that, over the six years to 2012, 47 per cent of bottlenose dolphin sightings in the North West region were off Liverpool. ‘These animals are not resident in the bay, so are they just coming in and out for food? Do they stay in the Irish Sea or go further?’

He also linked up with the Sea Watch foundation, to help on their photo ID survey to see if Liverpool Bay dolphins go to Wales, and vice versa. Then, in January this year, with the help of family and friends, he set up the Liverpool Bay Marine Life Trust, to further understanding of the ecology of the region and to educate the public about what species are found here. As he said: ‘Liverpool Bay has a long and well-documented maritime history but its marine life is less well known.’

All this, and time to get married too. Mathew and Katrin met in class on the first day of university, have been together ever since, and are due to marry at the end of August.