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WELSH WILDLIFE CHECK UP | FEATURE

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Innovative projects in Cardigan Bay are trying to measure and reduce the impact we have on the Welsh wildlife, but just how successful are they? Marta Montanari investigates.

The splash of the water against the boat is the only audible sound as the tourists down below and scientists on the deck of the boat search the ocean intently. An hour has already passed since the boat left the pier and finally something is moving in the water not too far from the coast.

A little splash in the water just in front of the boat and a dorsal fin appear first, followed by a grey, shiny tail. It’s definitely a dolphin. The silence is broken by shouts and pointing fingers, the tourists amazed and hoping to see a little more. For many of them the long journey to New Quay in Cardigan Bay has just been made worthwhile.

The boat trip is part of a cooperation between Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips and the scientists of the Sea Watch Foundation, a charity based in New Quay to preserve marine wildlife.

Jonathan Winston

Jonathan Winston

The partnership was formed long ago to reach a common goal: show people just how important marine wildlife is. “They needed boat operators so we’ve been fortunate that they have come to us to take them out on boat trips. They can continue doing data gathering on an hourly basis everyday and it doesn’t cost any money, and we benefit from our association with them because we’ve learnt a lot about wildlife and the public consider us not part of the problem, as we are not exploiting wildlife,” explains Jonathan Winston whose family own Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips’.[1]

The current project by the Sea Watch Foundation aims to monitor how dolphins interact with boats. Kathy James, the sightings officer at the Sea Watch Foundation says, “We encourage people to monitor UK wide. The Cardigan Bay monitoring project sees our team going out and doing land surveys to see what they can see from the pier and to monitor the boat interaction with dolphins. Then they go out to get really close up pictures of dolphins, that’s like a fingerprint to identify them.” [2]

This process will allow easy recognition and by using previous pictures and information they will have an overview of dolphin population in the bay. In this way it’s possible to understand their lives and see if they are still alive. “It means that you can look at an individual dolphin that has been seen through its lifetime and is associated to a particular habitat. Has it had a calf? Has it died even? Often you don’t find out but if one is washed up you can understand,” says Kathy James. [3]

The population is constantly monitored to record changes. “We have a declining number of dolphins in the bay, but we are not saying that’s necessarily anything to be worried about because it can be a fluctuation, nothing dramatic just a slight decline in the past couple of years. It’s quite a healthy bay water wise, it’s not very polluted but there are quite a lot of rivers coming in that could bring pollution from the farms,” says Kathy James. “One thing we watch is boat traffic as there are quite a number of tourist trips here and we do monitor from the pier, we see what interactions the boats and the dolphins are having and where. The rival research group suggest that there are more and more boat encounters and fewer dolphins sightings but we need to check out our data.”[4]

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Spotting creatures like dolphins is not always easy, which may affect the perception researchers have of the population’s number, “It’s very difficult to have an opinion on whether the dolphins are increasing or decreasing because there are so many different factors on the dolphin numbers and the data are so dependent on people seeing the dolphins. You can only really get a guide because if the weather is bad, you’re going to have fewer dolphin sightings because the visibility is poor and the number of days spent on the pier is less,” says Jonathan Winston.[5]

Recognising each dolphin shows which ones have been seen and if they have been injured or have died. While the scientists observe from the deck, each dolphin appearance is registered on a chart. Details about behaviour, number of boats in the area, the direction that the animals are moving in and how their position compares to the boat are all recorded.

The difficulty lies in teaching people how to behave and not have an influence on wildlife. Setting a good example is the first step “I think we are setting a good example by adhering to an invisible sort of barrier, we all stay a distance away. So if a speedboat comes along and wants to interact with the dolphins they are conscious that we are not as close as them, and they start to feel maybe they’re a bit too close,” says Jonathan Winston.[6]

Being in a protected area designated as an SAC (Special Area of Conservation) comes with certain rules that need to be followed to preserve wildlife. He continues saying “There are national rules and there’s a specific code for Ceredigion and Cardigan Bay, which is evolving. It’s a bit difficult because from the point of view of protecting the dolphins, the ultimate way to mitigate any potential disturbance or impact on dolphins is to have no boats at all, so you have to have a very reasonable department for protecting the dolphins and reasonable people with reasonable aims because ultimately they want to protect the dolphins, but different individuals have different approaches.”[7]

Some of the dolphins are attracted by the waves created by boats and they play with them, that’s when it’s important to follow the rules to avoid injuring them with the boat or propellers. One example of this is the Pembrokeshire Marine Code. “It asks people to follow a voluntary code of conduct to avoid damaging interactions, it asks them to behave in a certain manner around wildlife, and also we mapped the sensitive areas in Pembrokeshire,” says Paul Renfro Sustainable Recreation Coordinator at the Pembrokeshire Coastal Forum. “There are special places for wildlife and we ask people to avoid those areas during sensitive times in the year, so when birds are breeding or seals are pupping we say they are too sensitive and you need to stay a bit further away. Let them just be and get on with their natural process.” The goal is not to keep people far from wildlife but to find a balance in teaching them how to view and interact with it while minimising disturbances. [8]

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One of the projects, which tried to get people involved, just finished with the Sea Watch Foundation. The Welsh Sea Watchers project had funding for the last three years and established a good base throughout the country. “It was basically to encourage Welsh people or people who live in Wales to go and make observations to contribute to our data but also about awareness which is great because it’s what we are trying to do overall anyway,” says Kathy James. “It’s been really good that we reached thousands of people through things like social media, but we also physically met hundreds of people telling them to go and make observations with the confidence to do so. We’ve set up regional coordinators for all volunteers but people have said ‘this is my patch that I’d like to survey’ and we encourage other people to do so. That’s the idea and it should continue hopefully.” [9]

Other projects keep the goal of including people and making nature part of their lives in mind. Adopt a Dolphin is a project run by the Sea Watch Foundation and asks for a contribution of £3.50 every month. It also provides the possibility to help conservation efforts in UK waters.[10] Also students are highly involved, since 2001 with European funding and the Countryside Council for Wales, students go to conduct research for their degrees, collecting data and participating in foundation studies as well as analysing those already archived. In the same way, Anglesey Marine Week has been created to get people interested and appreciate nature.[11] Different contributors participate in the event to raise money for charities, which have marine conservation policies.

Cardigan Bay’s privileged position helps the foundation bring people closer to wildlife and tries to take animals like dolphins and porpoises into consideration. “The thing that we really try to do here is to help people get to understand what various species there are. People have no idea what we have,” says Kathy James. “People may know that we have dolphins here in Cardigan Bay but they think that’s it for all of the UK.”[12]

[1] Face to face interview, 14/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[2] Face to face interview, 13/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[3] Face to face interview, 13/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[4] Face to face interview, 13/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[5] Face to face interview, 14/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[6] Face to face interview, 14/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[7] Face to face interview, 14/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[8] Face to face interview, 12/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[9] Face to face interview, 13/07/2016, New Quay (Wales).

[10]Anon Adopt a Cardigan Bay Bottlenose Dolphin and save its life. [Online]. Available  at: http://www.adoptadolphin.org.uk/ [Accessed: 30 July 2016].

[11] Anon 2016. Sea Watch Foundation » Student Projects [Online]. Available at: http://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/msc-and-bsc-studies-in-collaboration-with-sea-watch/ [Accessed: 2 July 2016].

[12] Face to face interview, 13/07/2012, New Quay (Wales).

All images by Marta Montanari

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