Fiona Finch takes a look at the hidden world off Lancashire’s coast and discovers why parts of the Ribble, Wyre and Lune estuaries were given protected status this year.
There is treasure in the seas off Lancashire and its coastal estuaries - but not of the traditional kind.
It is a treasure trove which needs special protection and this year it got that protection.
The Ribble and the Wyre and Lune estuaries were among six Irish Sea zones receiving new protected Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) status from Defra, the Government department for environment, food and rural affairs.
Two zones off the Cumbrian coast and others to the west of the Isle of Man also gained the designation which is designed to protect important, rare and threatened species and habitats.
Endangered fish, ancient clams, sea urchins and anemones are among the aquatic life set to be the beneficiaries of MCZ status.
Dr Emily Baxter, senior marine conservation officer at the North West Wildlife Trust, said: “The protection of these areas is crucial to the recovery of an array of underwater habitats and threatened species that have suffered from decades of over-exploitation. These special places include deep muddy plains that are home to delicate sea pens, strange spoon worms, fragile sea potatoes as well as the world’s longest lived creatures ocean quahog clams. Other areas include scarce areas of sandy seabed that supports a wealth of wildlife from molluscs to sea urchins and burrowing anemones and starfish.”
A particular star of the local area and the reason for the MCZ river estuaries’ designation is known both for its rarity and its smell – swim forward the unusually named smelt or cucumber fish, so called because of its distinctive cucumber like smell.
Emily said: “It is related to salmon, about 30cm in length and quite silvery looking. They used to be widely distributed throughout estuaries in the UK. They only remain in a few estuaries.”
“Each of these (MCZ) sites will require management to ensure they actively protect these special under water habitats and species. We will be working hard with statutory organisations, regulators, other stakeholders and local communities to ensure this happens.”
Eleanor Falch, Lancashire living seas project officer * from the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, said: “These estuaries are internationally important for wading birds. They are an important breeding ground for cucumber fish and also because the mud is full of nutrients we’ve got a lot of mud shrimps and worms – the mud is teeming with life.”
Wading birds attracted by the rich food supplies include red shank, knott and sanderling.
Eleanor cited one little known local resident - the honeycomb worm which reside off the Wyre coast. She said: “They are ecosystem engineers. They live in these tunnels made out of sand and spit. They build up a tube to live inside and stick tentacles out to feed. They make a reef.”
This she said is full of “nooks and crannies” which other creatures live in.
Further out in the Irish sea Eleanor reports phosphorescent sea pens which turn pink to ward off predators and sea gooseberries which get washed up in Blackpool: “The sea gooseberries are a type of comb jellyfish. They show bits of luminescence as well. There are streaks up their body (which are) blue, green and red .”
The cuckoo wrasse fish further out in the oceanic depths is noteworthy too for its bright pattern and the fact females can turn into males at breeding time.
Eleanor cited some more easily seen wildlife sights to savour in local seas. She said: “Basking sharks are round our coast visiting the Irish Sea. They are about six to eight metres long and are the second biggest sharks in the world. They come up to feed in the spring. You can see them off the coast but they will often be far out.”
She reported one basking shark had been spotted from Sellafield in Cumbria in the summer.
Meanwhile the area off Walney in Cumbria is noteworthy as a protected area for seal breeding with seven pups this year.
She said: “You see the seals from Blackpool a bit and Fleetwood. We do quite a few seal watch events from Rossall Point Tower. The seals come across from Walney. They are quite curious, sometimes they’ll bob in the water close to the shore.”
Bottle nosed dolphins have also been spotted off Blackpool and Heysham. Such finds are recorded on the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s sightings blog.
Meanwhile on land keen marine life watchers can see shark and ray egg cases indicating those species are living off the north west coast. Eleanor said :”In summer you can find loads of really interesting jelly fish – barrel, lion’s mane and compass jelly fish. It’s important to know you should never touch them even if they’re washed up. They can still sting for 48 hours after they’ve died.”
People are becoming more aware in recent years. I think a lot of people think the Irish Sea is cold and lifeless because it is muddy and quit cold..you can’t just jump in and go snorkelling and see everything, but I think people are always quit amazed to hear about things living there.”
*Living Seas North West brings the region’s Wildlife Trusts together to protect marine life in Lancashire and Cumbria. See www.livingseasnw.org.uk There are numerous event each spring and summer organised by the Living Seas team, as well as opportunities to become a volunteer marine champion. See Living Seas North West on Facebook and livingseasnw on Instagram and @LivingSeasNW on Twitter.
Lobbying for change
In 2018 a Government consultation saw 1800 people from across the region calling for greater protection in the Irish Sea.
There were already 50 MCZs around the UK including a Fylde MCZ of 100 square miles off Blackpool.
This year’s new designations added a further 41 UK zones.
Joan Edwards, Director of Living Seas at The Wildlife Trusts, said: “We need to restore the seabed that has been ravaged over the past century and allow fragile marine life to recover – and this can only be done with good management.”
She said the new zones represented a great leap forward but called for more protection for the Irish Sea and said:”We are disappointed that a number of sites have been left out of this process, particularly mud habitats in the Irish Sea and English Channel … mud is a diverse and wildlife-rich habitat and we think it’s important that these areas are protected too.”