Cardigan Bay is part of a SAC, Special Area of Conservation, which means that it is a protected area for the marine mammals and birds that make it their home. We, at the Sea Watch Foundation, conduct research within this SAC to collect vital data that further reinforces why we need all boats (including paddle-boarders, kayakers, canoes, etc) to follow the Ceredigion Marine Conservation Code of Conduct at all times. So, what is the Code of Conduct?
This is a piece of legislation that safely allows marine mammals and boats to interact safely, as boats can cause severe damage to the marine mammals that live here in Cardigan Bay. When we conduct surveys via land-watch or on a boat we take photos of dolphins to identify who they are and/or if they are new to our catalogue, and we identify them by the scratches and nicks and notches on their body and dorsal fin (usually created from aggressive socialising or injuries from encounters with boats).
With this in mind, the Code of Conduct states that all boats must stay at least 100 metres away from marine mammals, including seals, and that they stay at a ‘no wake speed’ and not proceed more than 5 knots. Vessels should not stay in the company of marine mammals for longer than 10 minutes, as well as staying with said groups more than once per trip, as this causes unnecessary stress. Animals should never be approached directly, especially in the occasions that there is more than one boat heading the same direction so must stay on the specified route. With birds, you must pass the base of the cliffs at least 100 metres away and 200 metres during their breeding season (1st April to 31st August), and to do so with a ‘no wake speed’ and quietly so as to not disturb the colonies. If the birds are feeding or so on the sea, then they must be passed at least 100 metres away, where it must be no more than 5 knots and a ‘no wake speed’.
An article was published by James Ashworth on the 17th August 2022 under the title ‘Solitary whales and dolphins could be becoming more common’. on the official Natural History Museum website. James highlighted the dangers of coming into contact with cetaceans by saying that “Not only do we risk broken bones – or worse – by getting to close to them, but it can also lead to the animal losing its weariness around us. This puts it at greater risk of being injured or killed by vessels, and several individuals have been lost because of this.” Liz Sandeman, co-founder of the charity Marine Connection, was interviewed for this piece and supported the case that James put forward. A usually social species, dolphins as an example only become alone when separated during storms, illness or just by ending up in unsuitable environments such as rivers. This, then, titles those as Solitary Sociable Cetaceans (SSCs) making them want to inhabit localised areas (such as the coast of New Quay) and interact with their own species less, turning their attention to humans instead. Bottlenose Dolphins are the most common SSC which is the exact species we see the most often in New Quay, which is why it is so imperative to follow the Code of Conduct. But what do these dolphins face?
Liz goes on to explain that “The biggest threat that sociable solitary cetaceans face is habituation… If these animals become too used to the presence of humans and vessels, they can be struck by ships… These ship strikes can be fatal or cause serious injuries that may cause the animal to suffer.” which tells us that getting too close to cetaceans can be a serious threat to their life and without the Code of Conduct in place, it can create an irreversible decline in the populations of cetaceans that not only inhabit New Quay, but Cardigan Bay as an entirety.
It’s not just boats that can threaten a cetacean species, but the public too. Which is why, as mentioned above, we should never approach a cetacean at any time. We can harm these animals by interfering with their natural habitat, which Dolphin Spotting Boat Trip say in their trips, “It would be like us repetitively knocking on someone’s door every so often”.
One case of this was in 2008 where two men were charged for disturbing a particular dolphin by touching and grabbing him off the coast of Kent, this dolphin is named Dave, and were convicted under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. In conclusion to the case (more information here: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2008/apr/17/animalwelfare.animalbehaviour), they were convicted to 120 hours of community work within the next 12 months and had to pay £350 each for damages.
An article written by Aleksandra Koroza and Peter G. H. Evans, further demonstrates this point. Data was collected between the months of April to October and from the years 2010 to 2018. This study was conducted in New Quay Bay and included covering the SAC that around the southern part of the Welsh coastline (which New Quay is included in), it states that boat trips are important to the eco-tourism of New Quay and that the boat traffic within the area is heavily regulated by the Code of Conduct in place. Dolphin responses to different boat types and individually named boats were researched into further detail, and that compliance to a code of human behaviour increased a dolphin’s positive response towards boats. They found that small motorboats, speedboats and kayaks were the most likely to break the Code of Conduct which resulted in higher negative responses given by the dolphins and that the tour boats (also known as visitor passenger boats) were the most compliant of the Code of Conduct and made up the majority of the boat traffic in the area observed.
With all of the given information above, it reinforces our reasons at the Sea Watch Foundation that the cetaceans of Cardigan Bay, and specifically New Quay, need to keep being protected and further actions must be taken if boats or the public should not adhere to the Code of Conduct.
Official Code of Conduct can be found here: https://www.cardiganbaywatersports.org.uk/policies/ceredigion-marine-conservation-code-of-conduct/
Abbie Moore Research Intern