Humpback whales return and Wally the walrus on tour: UK seas in 2021

Humpback whale

UK seas have seen large numbers of humpback whales, surprising dolphin and killer whale sightings and efforts to restore oysters and seagrass beds in 2021.

But the Wildlife Trusts are warning that the marine nature is being disrupted by human activities around the coasts and that climate change is disrupting wildlife, from fish and crabs to Wally the walrus.

The Regional Charities Coalition Marine Review of the Year shows that by early December the Cornwall Wildlife Trust had recorded 17 sightings of humpback whales, once an extremely rare sight in UK waters.

This brings the total to 75 sightings since 2019, with the species believed to hunt the schools of sardines now found in the region’s waters, and shows that the numbers are recovering after the ban on commercial whaling.

Humpback whales have also been seen off the Isles of Scilly, the Firth of Forth and the Shetlands.

Orca preview of the Minnack Theater in Cornwall (Will McEnery / PA)
Orca preview of the Minnack Theater in Cornwall (Will McEnery / PA)

Two Hebridean killer whales have been spotted from the Minnack Theater in Cornwall, in the southernmost sighting of the West Coast community for over 50 years. They also made an appearance off Dover, Kent.

White-beaked dolphins have been sighted off Essex, far from their normal subarctic waters, while Moray Firth bottlenose dolphins have been recorded on the south coast for the first time.

But more than 170 cetaceans have stranded in Cornwall alone this year – along with 247 seals, many of which have been injured by fishing – including a striped dolphin, a species rarely seen in the UK.

People watch a minke whale in the Thames
Minke Whale in the Thames (Yui Mok / PA)

Nick the bottlenose dolphin, admired by swimmers in Cornwall, ran aground in Ireland with injuries corresponding to damage to the propeller, and a minke whale appeared in the Thames but had to be shot after his condition subsided. deteriorated.

Daniele Clifford, Marine Conservation Officer for The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Noise at sea caused by wind farms and other developments can disorientate wildlife and divert whales and dolphins – we need to think carefully about any development. sailor in the future.

“In addition, far too many sea creatures are being needlessly killed due to unsustainable fishing practices, with lost and discarded fishing gear also causing havoc – especially for seals, dolphins and other marine mammals.”

Organizations have also warned that people’s recreational activities are putting pressure on wildlife, with increased disturbance from jet skis and motorboats causing major concern.

A walrus sits on a rock at Seahouses on the north coast of Northumberland (Owen Humphreys / PA)
A walrus sits on a rock at Seahouses on the north coast of Northumberland (Owen Humphreys / PA)

The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales saw a baby seal abandoned by its mother after people were seen taking selfies with the young, while Dorset Wildlife Trust said large cruise ships anchored offshore from the coast during the pandemic damaged fragile reef and seabed habitats.

Climate change is also disrupting wildlife, with sea creatures from faraway places showing up around Britain’s coasts.

An arctic walrus nicknamed Wally caused a stir as its progress was tracked around the UK, while a second walrus was sighted off Northumberland and around the Shetlands.

A pufferfish, found on the high seas and rarely seen this far north, has appeared on Downderry Beach in Cornwall, possibly washed away by summer storms.

Stranded pufferfish
Beached pufferfish (Dave Drew / Cornwall Wildlife Trust / PA)

Collared blenny, a small fish found in the eastern Atlantic or Mediterranean, is now common in the Fal estuary in Cornwall.

And crisscrossed crab is now abundant on all Cornish coasts, overtaking common shore crabs, and is spreading to northeast Dorset as a clear sign of climate change, conservationists have said.

Extreme weather conditions are also having an impact, such as Storm Arwen which swept away hundreds of dead starfish and baby seals, as well as the stranding of a critically endangered Ridley de Kemp turtle in Flintshire , in North Wales.

Lissa Batey, head of marine conservation for The Wildlife Trusts, said: “It has been a fantastic year for marine megafauna sightings, especially in the Southwest, but it is clear that our oceans are under immense pressure. fishing, development, pollution, climate change. and recreation.

“All of these issues have a huge impact on life at sea.”

Efforts are being made to restore kelp (Dan Smale / Sussex Wildlife Trust / PA)

She said protecting the marine environment was a critical part of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 ° C to prevent the most dangerous climate change, as healthy seabed habitats store the carbon.

“We need policies that end unsustainable fishing practices and prevent unrestricted development at sea – and we need to protect at least 30% of our oceans by 2030. Future generations count on it.

Nature restoration and climate change projects led by the coalition of wildlife organizations include restoring the seagrass habitats that support nature, especially seahorses, and are responsible for about 15% of the carbon. absorbed by the oceans.

A landmark order to end damaging Sussex coast fishing practices was also passed in 2021 as part of efforts to restore nearly 80 square miles of key habitat.

Lure puffins, like the one on the left, are used to lure real ones, like on the right, to the Isle of Man (Kieran Tasker / PA)
Lure puffins, like the one on the left, are used to lure real ones, like on the right, to the Isle of Man (Kieran Tasker / PA)

Native oysters, which have declined 95% since the 19th century due to overfishing, pollution and disease, are resettling in places like Yorkshire, Essex and Belfast Lough.

In Northern Ireland, Ulster Wildlife’s “Sea Deep” project recorded its first juvenile skate, a critically endangered species, and if more are found it could indicate that they are breeding there. low.

And a project to bring puffins back to the Isle of Man, including eradicating rats and using model puffins to attract birds, took a big step forward when a pair were first spotted in over 30 years.

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