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Skomer Marine Conservation Zone’s special history, as it celebrates 30 years of designation this year

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Thirty years ago, very few people knew about the unique and hidden underwater world off the Pembrokeshire coast. To most it was just out of sight, out of mind. Now, as the only Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) in Wales, Skomer is a very special site that is home to a wide range of marine life.

A Grey seal cow and her pup on one of the beaches at the Skomer marine conservation zone © NRW
A Grey seal cow and her pup on one of the beaches at the Skomer marine conservation zone © NRW

This year, Skomer MCZ celebrates its 30th Anniversary. For those 30 years, it has been a focus of study of underwater life helping us better understand, protect and enhance Wales’ marine environment as well as the creatures living within it.

Its journey to MCZ status was neither easy nor quick – it started back in 1971 thanks to a group of local naturalists and biologists from the Field Studies Council. But it took nearly twenty years and a change in wildlife legislation to achieve designation as a Marine Nature Reserve. Further changes in legislation meant that it became Marine Conservation Zone in 2014.

Our marine officer, Kate Lock, with a framer during some monitoring © NRW
Our marine officer, Kate Lock, with a framer during some monitoring © NRW

Today, a team of four NRW marine scientists work at the Skomer MCZ. Unlike any other Marine Protected Area in the UK, the team are responsible for the overall management of the site. They also complete the extensive marine monitoring programme which has built on the marine biological surveys started in the 1980s. The work involves many duties common to managers of terrestrial Reserves such as outreach, interpretation and collaborations with academic institutions. It also covers visitor management and staff being out on the water at weekends to provide information. This is all the more important when you consider that many of the site’s protective mechanisms are voluntary.

These voluntary codes of conduct help protect the site and some aspects of the separately managed Skomer Island National Nature Reserve. They prevent the use of anchors other than in certain areas, control the recreational taking of shellfish and restrict access to sensitive areas at critical times to prevent disturbance to cliff nesting seabirds and breeding seals. We are very fortunate at Skomer that these measures are well adhered to and accepted by commercial and recreational visitors.

One of our monitoring team measuring scallops from the Marine Conservation Zone © NRW
One of our monitoring team measuring scallops from the Marine Conservation Zone © NRW

There are also more conventional legal measures such as a speed limit byelaw and fishery byelaws. These prohibit fishing by beam trawling or dredging or the taking of scallops by any means.

The site is also unusual for its array of monitoring work. It covers underwater and shore species and habitats, and marine mammals, as well as oceanographic and meteorological data, and the recording of recreational visitors and commercial activities such as fishing and tourism. These additional elements of data helps the team interpret the biological monitoring data within the context of local environmental conditions and levels of human activity. The monitoring work provides long-term data sets which for some projects extend back 35 years. With this breadth of work, it is recognised as the most comprehensive marine monitoring programme in the UK.

The sheer volume of monitoring work would not be possible for the MCZ’s small team to carry out on their own. We rely heavily on contributions from volunteers. Whether they be suitably qualified divers able to supplement our own diving team or volunteer diving teams who have surveyed more than 180,040 square metres of seabed over the last 30 years looking at scallops, fish, urchins and eel grass. Volunteers have also helped crew the boat at weekends and with shore and seal surveys.

Skomer MCZ is situated where northern and southern species overlap and has a wide range of seabed and shore habitats - everything from sheltered fine sediments to bedrock reef exposed to Atlantic storms. The tidal range of 7m creates strong currents around the site and large intertidal exposures. This all contributes to the site’s very high biodiversity, making it a great place to study and monitor changes in the marine environment.

One of the team measuring a scallop as part of the monitoring project © NRW
One of the team measuring a scallop as part of the monitoring project © NRW

There have been both positive and negative changes seen over 30 years:

  • Numbers of seal pups being born throughout the MCZ have increased steadily, especially on mainland beaches;
  • The eelgrass bed in North Haven has become more extensive, although shoot density has fluctuated;
  • Numbers of species recorded at the site have increased, with over 130 species of sponges and 79 species of nudibranch (this represents 70% of all UK species in an area that represents less than one hundredth of one percent of the UK territorial sea area);
  • Over the last 30 years, scallops, which are protected from all forms of fishing, have increased at least seven-fold;
  • Some of our Lusitanian species have not done so well, for example the loss of pink sea fans has increased in recent years: Between 2008 and 2014 four sea fans out of the monitored population of 120-124 fans were lost, but between 2015 and 2019 there have been 21 fans confirmed missing and a further 5 losses in 2019 awaiting confirmation.

With climate change and other challenges facing the marine environment, it is more important than ever that Skomer continues to flourish as a place of learning and conservation.

Today, the Skomer MCZ team produces NRW marine monitoring evidence reports on all its projects. These provide evidence to support the management of the Skomer MCZ, the management of Pembrokeshire Marine Special Area of Conservation and the marine environment in Wales’ ‘State of the Environment’ reporting.

To see the reports, you can follow this link.

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