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Storms highlight important work of seal stranding investigation

Published: January 24, 2018

The Cornwall College Group Newquay marine biology | University

The recent storms and resulting casualties amongst seals has brought the work of a local marine conservationist into sharp focus.

Catherine Barry, who completed her Foundation Degree in Marine Conservation at Cornwall College Newquay, has undertaken a project analysing the link between grey seal mortalities and the way in which marine strandings are reported around the county.

“Since starting university, I have tried to be as involved as possible with the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, so I wanted to take the opportunity to look into seals and the threats to them,” she explained.

“The project investigates the increase in numbers of Grey seal mortalities around Cornwall and whether this is due to an overall increase in Grey seals dying or an increase in the reporting effort. The data was gathered through the use of the Marine Strandings Network database, which records all reported dead Grey seals across the South West.”

The Marine Strandings Network, run by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, consists of a team of over 100 volunteers who record all reported strandings of marine organisms on Cornwall’s coastline.
The volunteers’ main activity is recording and photographing all stranded dolphins, whales and porpoises, as well as seals, basking sharks and turtles. Recording stranded animals provides information about the marine environment and the health of marine creatures.

This information is vital in helping to conserve wildlife and provides an insight into causes of death and threats to survival.

Catherine’s analysis uncovered some interesting findings.

“The examination of the data suggested that there is both an increase in the amount of awareness for reporting seals, as well as an increase in the number of seals dying,” she explained.

“There is no certain answer to the project, just a number of suggestions such as a possible increase in danger, with stronger storms, increased bycatch from fishing and a larger amount of marine pollution being possible contributing factors. Or even that the seal population is reaching carrying capacity and therefore there is an increase in competition for food and shelter, we cannot be certain.”

The locational trend which was observed was the distribution of the data has begun to spread across the South West since 2000.

“This was when seal stranding records were added to the Marine Strandings Network, as well as the start of the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, which therefore could suggest that there had been an increase in awareness, thus an increase in people reporting strandings,” she explained.

“It is also worth considering that the number of visitors to Cornwall is rising each year, therefore people are exploring and visiting more places around the county, which is resulting in them inputting data from new locations.”

Catherine had the opportunity to present her findings recently at Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s annual Strandings Forum, alongside leading experts including Rob Deaville and Dr Paul Jepson from the Zoological Society of London. Although Catherine was ‘extremely nervous’, she enjoyed the experience: “I have never been confident when presenting in front of my fellow peers, so the thought of presenting in front of experts terrified me. But after mentally preparing myself, with the support of my lecturer Rebecca Allen and friends in the audience, I really enjoyed it.”

Since completing her studies at Cornwall College Newquay, Catherine is taking time out from education and alongside working she is volunteering with seal pup rescues and rehabilitation through British Divers Marine Life Rescue. She also has plans to volunteer with Archelon, a sea turtle rescue charity, at their rehabilitation centre in Athens in March for 5 weeks before returning to complete her Bachelor’s degree.

Catherine recalled her experience studying at Cornwall College Newquay: “I loved the connections that my course provided me with, it encouraged me to get out in the real world and be enthusiastic with the learning and education side. I also loved being up to date and aware of current global topics. It kept up my momentum to make me want to be out in the environment, feeling like I could help make a difference to the threats marine life faces.”

To report a marine stranding of any type, please call Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Marine Strandings Network 24hr emergency hotline free of charge on 0345 201 2626.

For more information on the range of Zoology, Surf and Marine courses available at Cornwall College Newquay visit www.cornwall.ac.uk/newquay or call 0330 123 2523.

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