Turning the tide in the Irish Sea with Cheshire Wildlife Trust

More people have been to the moon than have explored our deepest seas, but could a lack of understanding of what lies beneath the surf be putting our wildlife at risk? Tom Marshall of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust dives in to find out

There are few creatures that can be identified by a handful of opening notes on a film score. But as soon as we see just a hint of a ripple in an otherwise calm ocean and two of the deepest notes in cinema, there can only be one conclusion. Add the double-take of a tip of steel-grey dorsal fin and suddenly we’re on the edge of our seats. Shark.

Those same spine-tingling moments are playing out in the waves off Cheshire’s coast each summer in the Irish Sea, but this time the culprit is the rather more sedate but nonetheless impressive basking shark.

Although the unmistakeable triangular dorsal fin still stirs the primeval fear in our stomachs, any worrying similarities with the basking shark’s movie cousins end there.

Rather like a living, breathing, iceberg, all that most of us will see of a basking shark are those fins and perhaps the tip of that distinctive wide mouth. Below the waves however, is a five ton plankton processing machine capable of filtering more than a million litres of water every hour for tiny marine creatures that have allowed this giant to become the second biggest fish in the world.

The presence of this globe-trotting gentle giant suggests that the seas off Cheshire’s coastline are critical not just to the UK, but to the international marine environment – and if you look closely the evidence is there for all of us to see.

Strandlines of washed-up seaweed and other debris snake across our beaches dotted with the cream, sponge-like balls of common whelk egg cases and an abundance of shells – tellin, periwinkles, whelks, cockles, mussels, and the discarded remains of crabs – just a glimpse of what goes on beyond the breakers.

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So why is the Irish Sea so alive? The Wildlife Trust’s North West marine conservation officer Cheryl Nicholson has the answer. ‘The Irish Sea is warmed by the Gulf Stream, creating unique conditions for this latitude – so not only do we have basking sharks, but blue sharks, leatherback turtles and a wonderful array of other marine life.’

Cheryl’s job is to bring our seas to life in local communities, and bring what often seems beyond our reach to places where we can find out more about it – like building life-size basking shark sand sculptures on the region’s beaches with children and families.

While the rest of us jet away for some guaranteed summer sun, there is only one destination for the basking shark and that’s Britain’s West Coast; from Cornwall to the Hebrides, and we’re right in the middle.

The Irish Sea could potentially be one of the most productive marine environments we have. But as Cheryl explains, it’s also a fragile place. ‘Over the last few decades there’s no denying the influence man has had on the Irish Sea. There are very few areas left that are not used one way or another by humans.’

The main impacts seem to be from extraction, fragmentation, and over exploitation of species, and of course the pollution that comes from all the countries around the Irish Sea.

These activities have had a dramatic effect on the marine life. The number of basking sharks alone is reported to have dropped by 95 per cent.

In an effort to reverse this trend, Cheryl has been representing the Wildlife Trusts at forums across the region to try to understand how we can best protect our oceans through the creation of new Marine Conservation Zones – the nature reserves of the sea. This, it seems, is no easy task, balancing the needs of a complex and fragile ecosystem with the demands of numerous industries and individuals who rely on the Irish Sea every day.

Cheryl explains that the zones will be the last piece of the puzzle in a wider jigsaw of ‘Living Seas’, and will provide a new way of extending environmental protection in our oceans.

‘It’s really important to get them in the right places,’ Cheryl stresses. ‘They are primarily protecting the sea floor and by protecting that habitat it will give the species that use the area the chance to recover.’

Although this underwater world is mostly hidden to us, Cheryl says it is vital to the health of the bigger, more iconic creatures like the basking shark and leatherback turtles. ‘Most marine species are dependent on the seabed and the creatures there will be food for those further up the food chain – it’s all interconnected.’

So next time you’re down on the beach, take a moment to consider the world that lies beneath the waves, and why not take a moment to see what you can find? Perhaps a mermaid’s purse – actually part of a ray, another relative of the sharks – or maybe you’ll take a glimpse into a rock pool and find a tompot blenny staring back at you. Or if you’re really lucky, you might catch the tip of a basking shark in the distance. But to get any closer, there’s always a chance you’ll need ‘a bigger boat’.

Trying to tip the scales

The Trusts are currently touring the region with several giant ‘Petition – and even an eight foot long basking shark – to collect signatures on shining silver scales that will make their way to Westminster to urge the Government to do the right thing for the UK’s seas.

You can do your bit by signing a scale at a Cheshire Wildlife Trust event, or going online to www.wildlifetrusts.org.