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Research could help protect Cornish fish

Published: May 26, 2016

Falmouth Marine School Falmouth Adult | University

Research being undertaken by a local marine science student is helping to provide an insight into a protected species in the waters of North Cornwall.

Student Ben Conway, who is currently studying his FdSc in Marine Conservation at Cornwall College Newquay, has been conducting a research study into the Gobius cobitus, more commonly known as the giant goby. The study is being funded by Natural England and is designed to assess the range of gobies on the north coast of Cornwall between Park Head and Godrevy.

The giant goby is a warm water species, primarily from the Mediterranean and Black Seas, but extends along the Atlantic coast as far as the Western English Channel.  In the UK, it is nationally rare and found only in the south-west. Due to its rarity, it is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, meaning that it is illegal to kill, move, possess, or even disturb it. The application of this protection is challenging in the absence of good knowledge about where populations exist, whether distributions are shifting with our changing climate and about the habitats used by these populations.  Filling these gaps in knowledge was the goal of this research study, which in turn will help in the protection and conservation of the species in local waters.

Under the guidance of Marine Conservation lecturer Dr Angus Jackson, who is heading up the study, student Ben has been carrying out fieldwork at a total of 8 sites on the north coast. This involved using baited traps to capture and record specimens, ensuring that all fish and other organisms were handled carefully and released unharmed back to their original location. Ben battled with mixed weather conditions to complete two rounds of surveys at specific times between June and November of this year, with only 3 or 4 days per the fortnightly tide cycle suitable for carrying out the work.

Dr Jackson, said: “Ben has been an excellent student, putting a large amount of time and effort into the survey.  He developed and refined the survey methodology and it is now a low-cost and effective way to assess the presence and population size of this rather elusive species. The project benefitted greatly from Ben’s enthusiasm and local knowledge of the shore. In turn, Ben has improved his knowledge of fish ecology, extended his field survey skills and learned about threatened species and legislation that is in place to protect them.  In addition, time spent on the project also contributed to the work experience that he needs to accumulate as part of his Foundation Degree. Overall, the project is a great example of how we embed applied skills within the teaching that we do at Cornwall College Newquay. It is also contributing valuable knowledge to the protection of our coastline and the wildlife that it supports.”

The results of the study have been extremely interesting; with examples of the species being recorded at new sites on the north coast of Cornwall. In total, the project recorded 14 specimens of giant goby, measuring between 13.2 and 24.2cm in length, with by far the highest concentration found in the Newquay area. The new findings have helped to establish a stronger understanding of the ecology and conditions under which the fish tends to be found and are currently being put together as a report for Natural England and for submission for publication.

Ben explains: “As far as the scientific community is concerned, giant gobies have been recorded in the south of Cornwall in the Mounts Bay area but data had yet to be collected on whether their range extends on to the north coast. Our data shows clearly that it does, although the population seems to be focused primarily in the Newquay area. This is good news for Newquay’s status as a recommended Marine Conservation Zone as Gobius cobitus is a protected species under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.”

Ben added: “What I wanted out of my participation in this study was the experience gained from working on a ‘real-life’ scientific survey project. I also felt I stood an excellent chance of achieving a result as I had some prior experience and knowledge of the subject species and coastline to be studied; I am a keen shore angler and know the north Cornwall coast very well. Being able to carry out my own research and fieldwork has been great! As well as being good experience for the future, getting out and working among the subjects and environments I am learning about broadens my understanding immeasurably.”

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