Britain’s endangered spiny seahorses have recolonised their former stronghold of Studland Bay in Dorset – that’s the conclusion following a dive by a team from marine-conservation charity the Seahorse Trust.
The seahorses had gone missing for the past two years, but the recent survey dive revealed no fewer than 16 of them, including pregnant males and even a juvenile born this year. This is the largest number found in a single dive at the site since the Seahorse Trust began monitoring at Studland in 2008.
Seahorse survey dives are carried out under Marine Management Organisation (MMO) licence by Seahorse Trust founder and executive director Neil Garrick-Maidment and the trust’s volunteers. It is illegal in the UK to actively seek seahorses, or to disturb them in any way, without an MMO licence.
Garrick-Maidment attributes the seahorses’ return to the reduction in people, boat traffic and associated noise and anchors in the area resulting from Covid-related restrictions.
“The ecology of the site has made a remarkable recovery,” he says. “The food-chain has recovered, giving seahorses plenty of food to eat and, crucially, somewhere to hide. The seagrass has started to repair itself, and the spiny seahorses have taken advantage of this.”
The spiny and the UK’s other native species the short-snouted seahorse have been protected since 2008 under the Wildlife & Countryside Act, following data-collection and campaigning by the Seahorse Trust.
Last year Studland Bay was designated as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) in recognition of the importance of its seagrass habitat and seahorse population.
Garrick-Maidment describes this development as “a tribute to the thousands of Seahorse Trust volunteers and supporters who collected data, campaigned and signed petitions to get the site protected”.
“The question is how we go forward,” he says. “We do not want boats and divers banned, but the seahorses and seagrass do need their legal protection enforced.
“The 16 seahorses discovered on a single dive are an amazing discovery, but we now need the MMO and Natural England to enforce the Wildlife & Countryside Act and the MCZ and put in place measures such as environmentally friendly moorings.”
“The seahorses need protection to stop them being disturbed again as Covid restrictions are lifted, and to stop them vanishing from this legally protected site. We have a unique opportunity to help Nature and to restore the balance of our planet.”