SO what did 357 people find in almost three years of searching the North East coastline?
The volunteers, dubbed “citizen scientists”, are part of a Newcastle University project to build up a baseline picture of the species which live in the inter-tidal shoreline of the region.
The Big Sea Survey, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is due to end in August, but yesterday the findings so far were presented to the volunteers at a gathering at the university.
The event was addressed about the value of citizen science by BAFTA award-winning television producer Martha Holmes, who has worked with the BBC’s natural history unit on wildlife documentaries such as The Blue Planet with Sir David Attenborough.
The survey participants were given a long list of coastal marine species and asked to choose five which they would look for on regular trips to the coast.
A total of 134,000 records have been amassed so far of what was – and was not – found, covering more than 200 species.
The aims of the project are to produce an up-to-date record of marine intertidal species records along the coast which will feed into management strategies and provide the baseline for detecting environmental change, and to raise awareness of marine issues.
“The survey is providing good data of species against which we can measure changes in the future, such as how climate change may effect species,” said project officer Dr Heather Sugden, who is based at the university’s Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats.
“Volunteers came forward mainly by word of mouth. People are really interested in, and care about, the coast in the North East and wanted to be involved.”
Finds have included a very rare, for the North East, colony of stalked jellyfish, with 190 discovered at Beadnell in Northumberland.
“Before now we have spotted the odd one along our coast, but they have always been considered to be extremely rare,” said Dr Sugden.
Also recorded was a type of sea squirt – which looks like a blob of jelly – and is not native to the UK.
“This is a type of sea squirt which can potentially be very damaging,” said Dr Sugden.
“It’s quite an aggressive species that tends to smother things, such as sinking lobster pots, so it’s one to keep an eye on, and we wouldn’t have known it was there without this project. This is the first time it has been recorded in open natural habitats in the region.”
It is thought to have hitched a ride, probably via shipping, and has previously been found in sheltered marinas in Britain.
“Our survey has shown that it has now made the leap into a more open, harsher environment,” said Dr Sugden.
Another warm water species found by the survey is a mollusk with a shell like a traditional spinning top.
The North East also still has a reasonable “crop” of alaria, a cold-water kelp which has been retreating north as the climate warms.
Dr Sugden said: “The project is showing that we have a healthy and very diverse inter-tidal rocky shoreline.”
The region also has the lowest number of invasive, non-native species in England and Wales
“One possible explanation is that we are much colder than a lot places in England.” said Dr Sugden.
Dr Jane Delany, project leader at Newcastle University, said the survey was a huge undertaking which far exceeded initial expectations.
“The response from our citizen scientists has been tremendous,” she said.
“The records collected will contribute to national databases of marine species and allow us to build a better understanding of how our seas function. The success of this project reflects the recognition by a wide section of society that responsibility for seas and our natural heritage belongs to us all. Volunteers have a very important role to play in helping scientists and governments monitor the effects of pollution and climate change on the environment.”