The first shoots of marine nature conservation in Wales sprang from the Field Studies Council’s Pembrokeshire Dale Fort Field Centre (DFFC) in the late 1960s. Increasing numbers of professional marine scientists visiting the Centre, its developing focus on subtidal biology, the rapid development of recreational diving and the collection of shellfish and curios by divers becoming conspicuous, and a point of conflict with local fishermen, all coincided to foster a growing awareness that environmental stewardship might be just as necessary in the sea as on land.

Although Skomer Island had become a National Nature Reserve for its nesting sea birds in 1959, the conservation value of the surrounding sea went largely unrecognised despite its importance as the birds’ food resource. Nevertheless, DFFC staff began a dialogue with the Nature Conservancy and Skomer Island’s managers that eventually led to declaration of the near-shore area surrounding Skomer and the adjacent Marloes Peninsula as a voluntary marine reserve in 1976.

Surveys carried out by recreational divers during Underwater Conservation Year in 1977 paved the way for three projects that are now a cornerstone of the ‘citizen science’ contribution to the Marine Nature Reserve’s (MNR) monitoring programme. That same year, Dr Robin Crump—then the voluntary reserve’s scientific secretary— and I discussed the need for long-term monitoring.

Eventually, in 1981 I established a permanent photo-monitoring site on Skomer’s ‘North Wall’ to document change in some of the species whose growth rates and lifespans we knew little about, and how communities changed seasonally and over longer time scales. Additional sites were soon added to broaden the habitats and species included. Early findings confirmed that some species grew extremely slowly, but there were also surprises such as the rapid growth of some sponges and the extent to which others regressed when conditions got tough—for instance in unusually low winter sea temperatures or particularly high levels of suspended sediment—and recovered later. The importance of such factors as temperature and water quality in influencing species condition quickly became obvious and this knowledge played a major role in the way the MNR monitoring programme later developed.

Routine diver-monitoring sampling is non-destructive whenever possible, using either photography, video or in-situ recording, to ensure it has minimal or no effect on the species and communities under observation. Image: Rohan Holt.

After provisions for statutory MNRs were introduced and four years of negotiation, Skomer MNR was designated in July 1990, becoming the UK’s second MNR. Since MNR legislation was recognised as weak, the emphasis for its management was public engagement, high profile deterrence presence and monitoring. Over two decades later the on-water public engagement and patrolling and onshore outreach and education have won hearts and minds and secured the support of most users.

Designation of the statutory MNR brought with it staff and resources to expand and improve the targeting of monitoring. Focus shifted from trying to establish what was ‘normal’ to determining the condition of habitats, species and communities. Particular attention was paid to what were understood to be vulnerable species and habitats, in part moving toward what has since become known as risk-based monitoring.

It was clear that simply assessing condition and detecting change, particularly adverse change, was not going to be enough on its own to inform management requirements. As we needed to be able to explain changes and identify whether their cause was natural or anthropogenic, complementary surveillance of both human activities in and near the MNR and hydrographic and other influential processes was also begun.

Since 1992 the MNR’s annual monitoring programme has been a mix of in-house projects, contracts and, since 1997, a four-year cycle of citizen science projects which require modest taxonomic expertise but a lot of diverpower. Intertidal community and grey seal monitoring are essential parts of the annual programme but most effort is expended on sublittoral species and communities, ranging from anemones to Zostera (eel-grass), via sea-slugs, soft-corals, sponges, starfish and sediment communities.

Every year a dedicated group of volunteer divers book early to join that year’s labour-intensive resurvey of either the MNR’s eel-grass bed, seaurchin and starfish, scallop or territorial fish populations, collecting invaluable information over two weekends with MNR staff support and guidance.

An experimental investigation of scallop dredging’s impacts undertaken in 1985 resulted in the local Sea Fisheries Committee introducing a by-law prohibiting dredging, beam trawling and collecting scallops by any method. Scallop surveys by volunteer divers have helped show that the consequential conservation benefits are still accumulating, recording an encouraging and dramatic population recovery since collection was prohibited in 1988. Mean density has increased by more than 25 times, though recovery at some sites slowed after 2006 and recovery at one or two sites has been much weaker than at others.

Volunteer diver data have also enabled compilation of a time-series of detailed maps of eel-grass (Zostera marina) extent and density (see Box 1.) and demonstrated consistently higher densities of territorial wrasse at Skomer Island sites (no angling) compared with Marloes Peninsula sites (shore angling).

The volunteer projects together with other Reserve monitoring have recorded real conservation gains. Since dredging was prohibited, benthic sediment infaunal communities in formerly scallop-dredged areas have gradually developed into some of the most diverse in Wales. The MNR also makes a major contribution to Wales’ European Marine Site (EMS) monitoring programme.

Image opposite: Volunteer diver scallop surveys by have revealed a dramatic population recovery since collection by dredging and diving was prohibited. Image: Blaise Bullimore.

The noise in many datasets makes determination of change or stasis difficult to determine for many species. Small species such as cup-corals, anemones and small sponges may be obscured by sediment deposited in calm weather or luxuriant algal growth. Sessile marine species change their appearance and volume from one sampling event to the next depending on a host of environmental factors. Many years of consistent observations are essential to enable any judgement as to these species’ condition.

Ropes connecting shellfish pots are a direct threat to fragile erect species such as the seafan Euncicella verrucosa (l), and Ross coral Pentapora folicea (r). Image: NRW/SMNR

Despite the noise in the data and the protection afforded by the MNR, numbers of soft corals Eunicella verrucosa (pink seafan) and Alcyonium glomeratum (red sea-fingers) have shown a gradual decrease and the size distribution of Ross coral (Pentapora foliacea) colonies appear skewed toward smaller sizes. The species that appear to be doing best are those that have management in place to protect them. 

Over time it became clear that ‘low-impact’ shellfish potting was not quite so benign as had been popularly assumed (see photographs above) especially as fishing intensity increased—doubling between 2000 and 2005. Designation of the MNR as a ‘no take zone’ was proposed in 2005 but, despite two years of careful negotiations, the proposal, which would have enabled fishermen then using the MNR to phase out their effort over ten years and for angling to continue in the most popular area, was rejected by the Sea Fisheries Committee; potting effort then almost doubled again in the following three years.

Just five wholly Welsh European Habitats Directive EMSs and two cross-border estuary sites cover over 70% of the coastline and 36% of territorial sea area. So, when the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act introduced provisions for Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), rather than increase the area of designated sites, the Welsh Government announced its intention to use the new powers to create highly protected MCZs (HPMCZs) within which no extraction, deposition or damaging activities would be allowed.

By the time a prolonged, complicated and secretive site selection process was completed the rationale for the HPMCZ approach had been forgotten. The consultation which followed was badly mishandled and generated very vocal and politically active objection to the HPMCZ proposals. A Task and Finish Group was appointed by the environment minister to ‘reflect on’ the almost 7,000 responses to the consultation—81% of which actually supported HPMCZs—and, advised by a Stakeholder Focus Group, to advise on the way ahead with MCZs.

In July 2013 the Minister announced that all proposals were scrapped and that we are back to the drawing board, stating that more needs to be understood about the wide range of marine habitats and species that are already protected before designating more sites and tying the future of MCZs in Wales to the government’s ‘blue growth agenda’.

Ministers and civil servants rightly stress the need for evidence to support decision-making. So why was there no acknowledgement of the 140+ relevant survey and monitoring reports listed in the MCZ consultation document, nor of the MNR’s plethora of monitoring outputs and growing list of research publications from academics at universities from Swansea to Poland to Wellington, New Zealand? Of course we always want more information but it appears that no matter how much ecological information is collected, it is deemed insufficient or not good enough. Yet, the same standards of evidence are not demanded from challengers to MPAs, whose assertions of potential economic losses seem accepted without question.

Marine conservation in Wales is struggling. The success and value of the single MNR has been underappreciated almost since the day it was designated and EMS implementation has been, at best, disappointing. At present the MCZ process seems to have set progress back, not moved it forward. 

Where does this leave Skomer MNR? Twenty metres below the surface on Skomer Island’s North Wall is a big seafan which I first photographed in 1982. I have been back almost every year since and it is now an old friend but hardly any bigger. It is not as cute as seal pups, clown-faced puffins or charismatic dolphins. Alone, it has negligible economic value and does not provide much in the way of ecosystem services. But its continued presence and health are still important

It is difficult not to feel a bond with wildlife we have known personally for decades. I hope this fan will still be here next year. It is vulnerable to so many threats, suspended sediments, plastic debris and the fins of passing divers to name a few, but a direct hit from a rope on a string of pots is possibly the greatest risk. Since it is tucked into a cleft on a vertical cliff, perhaps it is safe. I hope so, and I also hope the MNR team will still be there with the resources to go back next year to check.

Blaise Bullimore first became involved with marine nature conservation in his twenties. He’s just turned sixty and observes that over three decades have flown by and Wales still doesn’t have a single square metre of seabed completely protected from damaging and exploitative activities. He began sublittoral monitoring on Skomer in 1982, carried out the support work for the Skomer MNR consultation and was its first manager. He is now an Honorary Warden and still helps with the annual monitoring work.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Skomer MNR’s annual project status reports include details and data summaries of all the individual projects; they are available online here

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Blaise Bullimore

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