April sees the 2nd Marine Research Ecosystems Programme (MERP) fieldwork cruise in the Celtic Sea and Western Approaches take place, using the Prince Madog research vessel. This cruise is principally for collecting samples of seabed animals, to investigate the impacts of productivity and fishing pressure on these vulnerable communities. However, surveys recording the distribution of seabirds and cetaceans are also taking place, to determine the factors that determine when and where these animals are found, led in person by Dr James Waggitt (Bangor University) under the remote guidance of Dr Peter Evans (Sea Watch Foundation). Specifically, this study aims to collect concurrent information on seabirds and cetaceans from visual observations, and fish and zooplankton from hydroacoustic surveys, across a broad range of different habitats within this region. This data will then be coupled with modern computational models that quantify ocean currents to see how physics effect prey characteristics, and then how prey characteristics effect predator distribution. This knowledge can be used to assess how changes in ocean physics, caused by marine energy extraction and climate change for instance, could impact seabird and cetacean communities; knowledge which could help us protect these animals from these changes.
The Prince Madog is currently seeking shelter from a storm near Dale, Pembrokeshire, after spending the first week off the southern coastline of Cornwall and Devon. On the initial trip from Menai Bridge to Cornwall, dedicated surveys off the northern coast of Anglesey saw a few Harbour Porpoise and auks, but nothing particularly spectacular. However, on moving through the Celtic Sea under bad weather, the crew were greeted by numerous pods of Common Dolphins, which made the seasickness a little better! Dedicated surveys off Lands End saw some large flocks of guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and Manx shearwaters, which are clearly back in decent numbers ready to start breeding. Dedicated surveys off southern Cornwall and Devon were less fruitful, but some nice flocks of guillemots and Manx shearwaters were still encountered near Salcombe and the Lizard. The vessel then moved back into the Celtic Sea, where again the crew were greeted by numerous pods of Common Dolphins. There was also a very brief sighting of what is likely to have been a Minke Whale. The benthic sampling activities also attracted large flocks of Gannets, almost certainly from Grassholm in Pembrokeshire, with some frenzied scavenging activity behind the vessel! The next few weeks will be spent surveying the Celtic Sea area between Pembrokeshire and North Devon, and this should hopefully yield lots of seabirds and cetaceans. The corresponding survey last year encountered a Fin Whale near Lundy – so hopes are high for something similar this time!