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2016 Community Sightings

2016 Community Sightings Network

2016 was a fantastic year for spotting marine mammals on the Clyde. We had 366 reports totalling 1157 animals.   The humpback whale ‘Hamish’ who appeared early in the year helped to galvanise awareness of the project. We are encouraged by the number of porpoise and minke whales that have been sighted. It seems 2016 was not a good year for basking sharks on the Clyde but excellent to see some visiting pods of bottlenose and common dolphins.

We have learned a lot and will be making some improvements to the online reporting form which should make things easier. We cannot do it without you…. Please keep an eye on the water and sightings coming in 2017 🙂

Species No. Sightings No. Animals
Harbour Porpoise 243 750
Bottlenose Dolphin 7 61
Common Dolphin 13 91
Humpback Whale 21 22
Killer Whale 2 3
Minke Whale 27 32
Unidentified Baleen Whale 7 7
Unidentified Dolphin Species 19 61
Basking Sharks 12 13
Grey Seal  3 14
Harbour Seal 9 83
Unidentified Seal  3 6

A big thanks to everyone that has made a huge effort and contributed sightings over 2016.  The influential sightings data  you have gathered has been forwarded to relevant environmental databases and made freely available to students, research and conservation groups. This information is already helping to raise awareness and importance of the Clyde environment to mobile species.

Community Sightings Network:
Amy McLaughlan, Adrea Livingstone, Alan Dickson, Alan Keegan, Alan MacFarlane, Alasdair Macleod, Alex Bisset, Alex Rhodes, Alison Macleod, Alison Myles, Alistair Bell, Ally Dowd, Andrew Elliot, Andrew Muir, Anne Archer, Argyll Cruising, Barbara Armstrong, Bo, Bonita Ellmore, Brendan Bocker, Brian Cheevers, Bruce Kennedy, Callum Coral, Calum Pearson, Cameron Marshall, Caren Adams, Caroline Briggs, Caroline Todd, Catherine Creamer, Catherine McNicol, Catherine McQueen, Catherine Smith, Ciorsdan Taylor, Clare Baguley, CMMP, CN, Colin Paterson, Daniel Arbon, David Carnduff, David Jardine, David Llyon, David Pratt, David Sykes, Donald Illingworth, Dot – Yacht Jack of Hearts, Doug Chase, Douglas Craig, Dr David Sykes, Eileen Silcocks, Eilidh Beck, Elaine Cowie, Elaine O’Reilly, Elaine, Elisabeth Howard, Emma Russell, Emma Thomas, Fenton Parsons, Fergus McKay, Fiona Laing, Fraser Brown, Fraser Lawrence, Freda Bos, Gary Spence, Gavin Eisler, Geirge Muir, George Muir, George Wands, Geraldine Hobbs, Gillian Donaldson, Gordon Kerr, Harris Munns, Holly Pickett, Iain Watt , Ian Cormack , Isla Robertson, Isobel Tear, Jack Ibbotson, Jackie Mitchell, Jacqueline Bond, James Clark, Jane Day, Janet Petrie, Jennifer McShane, Jenny Stark, Jessica Hart, Jill Kearse, Joan Downie, Joanne Barton, Joe Smith , John Carroll, John Hempsey, John Taberner, Julia Gossa, Julie McNicholas, Julie Whiteford, Justin Lyle, K McGinty, Karen Fischer, Kate Cartmell, Katie Baxter, Kay Sheikh, Keith Yarham, L Bradley, Lesley Bright, Luke Furze, Malcolm Weaver, Margaret Clark , Margaret Tweedle, Mark Hanlon, Mark Hindley, Marnie Sweeny, Martin Ashall, Michael Brown , Michael Corrigan, Michaela Blair, Mike Carroll, Mike King, Omar Salam , Owen Paisley, Pam Bates, Paul Edgar, Paul May, Paul Miller, Paul Renfrew, Peter Jones, Phil Cheek, Phillip Cowie, Rachael Kennedy, Riccardo Angelini, Robert Aldam, Rod White, Rodger Blackburn, Roy Robertson, Russ Cheshire, RV Saorsa Crew, Sandy Homer, Sandy Stuart, Sarah C , Scot Atkinson, Sharon O’Donnell, Sophie Sheilds, Sorcha Cantwell, Stephen Jackson, Steward Brown, Stewart Gunn, Stuart Ferguson, Thomas Cameron, Tim Richardson, Tom Callan, Val Borland, Vincent Durkin, Wendy Lodge, Willaim McAllan, Yvonne Phillips

The Clyde Porpoise Conspiracy

The Clyde Porpoise Conspiracy

The Clyde Sea was recently rejected as a potential candidate and excluded from the new porpoise Special Area of Conservation boundary that is being formed in the Inner Hebrides. The limited academic studies that have previously been conducted  have all highlighted the high densities present in the Clyde’s unique ecosystem. All papers have suggested that further research should be conducted as a matter of urgency to determine the true status of the Clyde’s resident porpoise population.

The Clyde Marine Planning Partnership (Firth of Clyde Forum) is responsible for leading and developing the ‘Clyde Marine Plan’ and steering us towards the ‘Clyde 2020 Vision’:

“The Firth of Clyde is a healthy and thriving marine ecosystem that is capable of adapting and mitigating for the challenges of climate change and supports sustainable fishing, tourism, leisure and other sustainable developments while offering protection to the most fragile species and habitats. This will enhance the quality of life for local communities and contribute to a diverse and sustainable economy for the West of Scotland.”

At last a statement proporting to embed the ‘ecosystem approach’ within a marine spatial planning context. It was fantastic narrative  and a framework was agreed in 2005 to carry work forward. This framework suggested  the need for further research on mobile species in the Clyde (Policy ENV3).  It was suggested that Firth of Clyde Forum, Marine Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage were to lead this work with a target delivery date of 2012.

Clyde Marine Planning Partnership policy document listing action to be taken on Mobile Species in the Clyde.

For various reasons this work was never undertaken.  Instead, the organisations that were meant to conduct the baseline research have now rejected the Clyde on grounds of insufficient and/or course data resolution and therfore could not be included in the models used for the recent Porpoise SAC assessment. It seems there are winners and losers in marine spatial planning and porpoises are currently on the wrong side in the Clyde.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-22-50-13
Data form Scotland’s National Marine Plan indicating the abundance of Porpoise in Cyde identified by acoustic detection.

The Clyde Marine Mammal Project believes that if the work had been completed the Clyde would have been properly identified as containing some of the highest densities of porpoise in any Scottish waters and recognised as a critical calving and nursery habitat.  As one of the Clyde’s main apex predators it is important to study these animals and understand how they modify and respond to the environment they are resident in. Failing to do so is a slap in the face for the  ecosystem approach and does not bode well for the Clyde 2020 Vision.

As a community-led initiative attempting to address these issues we have been collecting scientifically credible Passive Acoustic Monitoring data using a towed hydrophone array and receive hundreds of opportunistic sightings reports from a Clyde-wide community sightings network. This is citizen science on steroids and data is helping us to ‘independently’ determine the status of porpoise in the Clyde, the impacts and pressures they face and the role they play in our environment.

Yes, they are at the ‘pointy’ end of the stick with respect to most developments in the Clyde and face a suite of anthropogenic and environmental pressures but as a sensitive indicator species we need to know If they are doing well or why they may be  struggling. A better understanding of whats going on  can only benefit species management decisions in other areas and would be extremely short-sighted not taking the opportunity to study these animals within the context of the Clyde ecosystem.

It’s  early days for the project but preliminary results are staggering and suggest that the Clyde has as a similar porpoise density to any other high-density areas identified in Scotland, UK or across the remainder of Europe. For instance, while we are towing the  hydrophone array we are detecting one porpoise, on average, every 8.5 minutes.  Depending on the specific location in the Clyde  there could be a relative abundance of between 0.6 – 1.1 porpoises per km2 and are conservative estimates.  This means that there could be a minimum of between 2400 – 4400  porpoises resident in the Clyde and completely blows away any previous abundance estimates.

Clyde Marine Mammal Project research conducted over past few months clearly indicates high densities of harbour porpoise in  the Clyde. The map shows some of our hydrophone transect lines and positions of acoustic detections. Blue markers  indicate minimum number of porpoise per ‘click train’ detection. 

Again it’s only the start of the project, must be careful to draw conclusions from data but illustrates what can be achieved in a short period of time with some dedicated volunteers operating on limited funding.  Whether you like it or not, the Clyde’s resident porpoises form a marine extension to our coastal communities and cannot be swept under the aquatic carpet any longer. We are calling for the Clyde Marine Planning Partnership, Marine Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage to get behind and support the project, help us move forward and full-fill their original obligations outlined in their own Environmental Policies and statutory obligations.

Porpoise vs Powerboat

Porpoise vs Powerboat

The Clyde Marine Mammal Project is studying the abundance, distribution and behaviour of harbour porpoise in the Clyde. They are listed on the Habitats Directive as European Protected Species (EPS) and have additional protection under Scottish Conservation Natural Habitats Regulations which makes it an offence to deliberately or recklessly disturb the species.

The Clyde is known to contain a high abundance of harbour porpoise and is comparable to other high-density areas in Scotland. Harbour porpoises can be expected in all areas but we have identified parts of a Clyde-wide ‘foraging-area mosaic’ where a high frequency of activity is observed. The Ardmore Channel and McInroy’s Point area form part of this mosaic’ and are important areas for the upper Clyde’s resident porpoise population.

Porpoise foraging mosaic
Porpoise foraging mosaic

June and July are believed to be the calving periods for porpoise in the Clyde, and are the only periods when calfs are sighted, or neonatal stranding have been reported, to the Scottish Marina Animal Stranding’s Scheme. Porpoise are known to have a very high metabolic rate and need to continually forage. Studies have indicated that they may need to eat up to 500 food items per hour to sustain metabolic activity. The data we have gathered indicates that small groups of porpoise prefer, and utilise, certain areas.

Porpoise hunt for prey using echo-location at a bandwidth between 130-150kHz. They become habitualised to regular ferry movements which tend to emit lower frequencies, but are sensitive to higher frequency sources from propeller cavitation, and they show an avoidance reaction to high frequency depth sounders. Photographic identification images indicate that there may be a higher incidence of boat strikes in the Clyde than other areas.

The foraging-mosaic areas are generally where the water currents and underwater features concentrate prey items and are known to support a higher benthic diversity. Any disturbance to porpoise foraging behaviour has metabolic implications and cumulative impacts can have consequences for their health and survivability. We expect a certain level of disturbance to the porpoises in the Ardmore Channel and McInroy’s Point, and we expect they will be displaced to other areas during the ‘high-impact’ powerboat event. Each foraging patch may have a specific carrying capacity and displacement of animals can have detrimental implications at a population level.

The Clyde Marine Mammal Project offered assistance to the Powerboat P1 event organisers, suggesting that an Environmental Appraisal of the event be conducted, to include the gathering of baseline and supplementary data, however, this was not carried out. The project raised concerns with Marine Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Clyde Marine Planning Partnership, Inverclyde Council and Clydeport that there was a failure to meet the statutory obligations and that the ‘three tests’ laid out in guidance notices could not be fulfilled in a limited timeframe, and would breach the regulations and the environmental precautionary principle.

The project has been working independently to collect baseline and supplementary data. We hope that by monitoring potential impacts our contribution to event planning will be appreciated at future ‘high-impact’ events. During the race event we will be assessing levels of disturbance and behavioural changes to the resident porpoise population and we have enlisted the assistance of specialist acoustic, marine mammal scientists and a JNCC Marine Mammal Observer to work with us.

The Wandering Biologist – why i come back to the Clyde

Natalie  joins the project

I moved to the Clyde in 2011, starting a PhD at what was then the Marine Biological Station Millport. At the time most of my knowledge of marine life was the product of textbooks and David Attenborough. I had studied marine environmental management in York – a long way from the sea – and a few scattered field trips and a month living at the mouth of the Humber had given me no inclining as to what our seas had to offer. I had spent a few months working with the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre surveying bottle-nosed dolphins in the autumn of 2010, and my eyes had been opened, I couldn’t wait to settle in to a new home on the coast.

N_Welden_Harbour_Porpoise3-1 (1)When I relocated to Cumbrae soon after the storms of winter 2010/11, the weather was brooding and the sea was grey and uninviting. We had our first power cut within two months of my moving in. I couldn’t help but doubt the decision to move north; but, as the weather warmed, I was treated to one of the biggest transformations I have seen in any environment. The first thing I noticed were the birds. Fulmars arrived after a winter at sea, nesting in the cliff behind the house, and gannets plunged for fish just offshore. A month later I came across a feeding otter on Farland Point, 50 meters from my from door, the sea was now a glassy pool of deep blue, and I could watch as the animal swan from the point to the Eilans in the bay. That autumn I would watch a female with kits in Kames bay as the light dwindled to nothing, frustratingly preventing the use of my camera. Sitting out on the point of a still evening would guarantee sightings of harbour porpoises and seals howled eerily in the night (often un-nerving new students).
As my own research progressed I began collecting samples of sediment and water from around the Clyde in the search for insidious microplastics. Trips out on the research boats could throw up anything; we would frequently sight porpoises, and cheeky seals would follow the boat if we had brought up a trawl. One trip the weather would be fine, the sea glassy; the next we would pitch and roll and I would have to hold down the kettle and cups in the galley as the crew attempted to bring up a grab sample.

One of these trips resulted in a new nature first for me. We were running slowly south past Ballochmartin bay, trawling for langoustine with students on board, when one called out that a harbour porpoise had been sighted to starboard. Nipping out onto the deck I watched as a back emerged from the water, growing and growing as the water slipped of its back. Finally the small, back curved dorsal fin broke the water confirming that the “porpoise” was in fact a minke whale, moving swiftly south past the boat. It surfaced twice more before diving and we did not see it again.

The regularity with which the marine station’s vessels were out in the Clyde resulted in their crossing paths with many magical animals such as basking sharks and slow, drifting sunfish. Even on its sad last trip before leaving for new waters Aora would give me another first, a humpback whale in the Aran Deep.

N_Welden_Basking_Shark1 (1)There were still surprises to be had from shore, otters continued to appear regularly throughout my residence and the annual visits of breeding seabirds brought new species ever year. One evening we sat out in the dark playing calls to try and ring the wonderful little storm petrels. I even managed to visit the seabird colonies on Little Cumbrae and Ailsa Craig, enjoying the sense of exploration that visiting these now uninhabited islands brought. But the highlight of my stay is still the basking shark that visited the island in the autumn of my first year on the island. Lauren, with whom I shared an office, had just left for the day; I knew I was in for a long evening and had put the kettle on for another brew. Before it had chance to boil my phone was ringing with a call from Lauren; a five meter basking shark had followed the plankton in on the tide and was cruising the waters of Kames bay.

I watched that shark with 20 other people from the island that came and went as the light dropped away to nothing. At one point I nipped home to pick up my camera (a sprint of 300 meters and back) and snapped away at the animal at it cruised by the shore. It was so close that if I’d fallen in, I’d have landed on it. Children from town stood as close to the water as they dared. It was special.

During my time at the marine station I was lucky enough to explore Scotland’s waters. We took students to Mull to experience surveys on the whale watching boats working from Tobermory; I travelled to Shetland and peered from Sumburgh head in hope of Orca (with no luck); I watched common dolphins play in the wake of the Tiree Ferry. But despite the wealth of nature experiences to be had in these iconic locations, I gained a lot more from my time in and around the Clyde Sea. All those firsts. So many surprises, and so much wildlife; from unremarkable purple sandpipers that visit Stevenson every year, to the minke whales that cruise, un-noticed by all expect the lucky, observant few.

I may have moved away now, but I will continue returning to the Clyde Sea; to keep an eye on the wildlife that entertained me through four years of study, and to show others the amazing animals on their doorstep. It may look cold and grey out there now, but soon the season will turn, and there a host of animals will return to the Clyde; I’ll be there to meet them. – by Natalie Welden