Monday 31 March 2014

Land ahoy!

We’ve now come to the end of this survey aboard the RV Cefas Endeavour, completing our voyage around Farnes East, Swallow Sand MCZ and the Fladen grounds – three special areas of the northern North Sea. We’ve steamed back down south to Lowestoft through a thick blanket of fog and now have sight of the Suffolk coast again. However, whether we can actually come into port tonight remains to be seen, as we wait to see what visibility is like at high tide.

Spring temperatures haven't reached the foggy North Sea yet (Photo: Neil Golding).
The last stretch back to Lowestoft has seen us packing away equipment, cleaning the workspaces and completing our final checks of all the data we’ve collected. We have come back with plenty of data (despite the poor weather last week) and with the steam home taking 36 hours, we’ve had a good opportunity to get as much of our data entry and map work done as possible.

We’ve also had several more visitors joining our journey on board, the most recent and unexpected being a moorhen which turned up yesterday evening while we were in the middle of the North Sea. The moorhens that breed in the UK are resident, but this individual may be a Scandinavian bird, spending its winters in western Europe then crossing the North Sea to return and breed in Norway or Sweden.

A very camera shy moorhen Gallinula chloropus hitching a lift on the stern (Photo: Neil Golding).
Our last day also saw us being treated to a tour around the engine and winch rooms by Gary the Chief Engineer. This, in addition to our crash course on steering the vessel, could help us if we ever had to take control of the vessel in an emergency, but thankfully it didn't come to that!

The engine room on the lower deck (NB. imagine lots of noise) (JNCC/Cefas).
Of course a class photo with the vessel’s ensign was in order too – all looking happy to have made it through the survey with not a single sign of sea sickness!

Geeks at sea! (JNCC/Cefas)
Finally, we would like to thank our colleagues from Cefas for all their hard work on this survey, and the ship’s crew who helped us tremendously and made us feel very welcome aboard ship.

Farewell Fladen

The last phase of the survey up at the Fladen Grounds has been focussed on collecting evidence for Scottish Government to better understand feature condition across a surface abrasion pressure gradient, particularly looking at seapen and burrowing megafaunal communities.  One element of this burrowing megafaunal community is the Norway Lobster (Nephrops norvegicus) or langoustine as you may be more familiar with. Nephrops are typically nocturnal, so the night shift have had more luck spotting them then the day shift, as they emerge from the burrows to hunt and scavenge. They feed on other crustaceans, worms or even fish. Their main predator is the cod (Gadus morhua).
 A Nephrops caught in the 'headlights' of the camera sledge (JNCC/Cefas)
A Nephrops emerging from its burrow (JNCC/Cefas)
 At this time, it is too early to report any findings from the surface abrasion study.  Once off the ship, the data will be analysed intensively before the findings are captured within a final report….typically this process can take from 6 months up to a year.  Keep an eye on the JNCC website for the final report.

Despite the bad weather experienced throughout this phase of the survey, we've made some good progress during the more favourable weather experienced this past week.  When there’s a spare minute, we've had time to appreciate beautiful sunrises from the deck and oil rigs lit up at night.

Sunrise over the Fladen Grounds (Hugh Wright, JNCC)
Throughout a number of stations at the Fladen Grounds, we've spotted what may be a cup coral living on the surface of the sediment.  On our last grab of the survey, we were lucky enough to get two of these in our sample.  They do indeed look like a species of cup coral, but appeared to just be sitting on the surface of the muddy sediment (see the images below).

Cup corals seen on the muddy sediment surface from the camera sledge (JNCC/Cefas)

Two cup coral specimens recovered on the very last sample of the survey (Neil Golding, JNCC)
As I write this, we’re completing the last few camera transects before setting back to Lowestoft. It’s a long journey home – nearly 36 hours!  But it gives the survey team an opportunity to take stock of the data collected, and complete the ship-side QA checks.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Finally some Funiculina

On Wednesday we entered the ‘core’ area of Central Fladen pMPA, an area of particularly special seabed which previous surveys have told us contains all three seapen species. It wasn’t too long before our camera footage revealed many graceful tall seapens Funiculina quadrangularis - much taller, brighter white and less feathery-looking than the slender seapen Virgularia mirabilis.

Tall seapens Funiculina quadrangularis and brittlestars Asteronyx loveni.
Bolocera anemone lurks behind (top) and a hermit crab (Pagurus species)
and white sea urchin Echinus acutus sit beneath the seapen (below) (JNCC/Cefas).

A single sea pen is actually a colony of hundreds of polyps – anemone-like organisms related to soft corals. The feathery structure of each polyp allows them to catch and feed on tiny organisms and dead material in the water, carried past by tidal currents. The polyps’ feathery filaments and branches retract against the main stem of the seapen when disturbed.

Another organism keen to capture the food drifting past is the brittlestar Asteronyx loveni which climbs the tall seapens to gain a good vantage point for feeding. Most of the tall seapens in Central Fladen have had a brittlestar wound around them and some are so smothered that the seapens become weighed down to the floor.

The camera sledge has also revealed plenty of young fish and the impressive northern stone crab Lithodes maja which often shelters beneath the tentacles of the large Bolocera anemones.

A young gadoid fish, probably a haddock Melanogrammus aeglefinus (JNCC/Cefas).
A rockling (Phycidae) with white sea urchins Echinus acutus and a
scallop (Pseudamussium species) (JNCC/Cefas).
Northern stone crab Lithodes maja roaming the mud. This individual
measures about 40 cm across, from leg-tip to leg-tip (JNCC/Cefas).

Monday 24 March 2014

Time to get muddy in Fladen

With the MCZ element of the survey under our belts, the third and final leg of our survey took us up North to the Fladen Grounds, an extensive area of muddy seabed. This part of the survey is to assess the ecology of muddy communities, particularly the tall sea pen (Funiculina quadrangularis), and burrowing in-fauna (such as the langoustine Nephrops norvegicus). We've switched from a Hamon grab to a Day grab which now allows us preserve the layering of the sample so we can collect the top 2 cm for analysis of its organic and inorganic make-up.

Day grab in action (Neil Golding/JNCC)
Once the weather had cleared up, we were able to start sampling again. The sample strategy for the Fladen part of the survey is more intense both in terms of time and data collected. While 2 grabs are taken per station, a sledge camera transect is also taken in the same area.

Camera sledge deployment (Neil Golding/JNCC)
The grab samples have mostly been mud-dominated to start of with, the most common species making an appearance being the burrowing sea potato (Echinocardium cordatum), the white sea urchin (Echinus acutus), the slender sea pen (Virgularia mirabilis), the phosphorescent sea pen (Pennatula phosphorea), anemones (mostly Bolocera) and plenty of worms, which of course all have to be “tweezered” out of the 1 mm mesh sieve – an arduous and time-consuming task with numb fingers.

Virgularia mirabilis and Pennatula phosphorea (JNCC/Cefas)

The tall seapen (Funiculina quadrangularis) is a feature of interest in the Fladen area. A rarer find in the offshore environment than on the sheltered west coast of Scotland, it’s associated with burrowed mud habitat and can grow up to 2 m tall. After only a few decent sledge camera transects, we have so far seen lots of Virgularia mirabilis (above) and Pennnatula phoshorea (above and below) but Funiculina remains to be seen.

Pennatula phosphorea and the hermit crab Pagurus sp. (JNCC/Cefas)

Burrowing megafauna is a feature of interest in this area given the nature of the seabed habitat. While Nephrops norvegicus has been observed on the video tows, they have been too quick to take stills of yet. Below is the largest North sea anemone, Bolocera tuediae, whose tentacles provide shelter to various crustacean species; below could be the friendly blade shrimp Spirontocaris llijeborgii.

Bolocera tuediae surrounded by what could be Spirontocaris llijeborgii. (JNCC/Cefas)
Bed of Echinus acutus. (JNCC/Cefas)

Friday 21 March 2014

Gale Force 8: East Shetland Basin lives up to its reputation

Bad weather has sadly coincided with our arrival at the Fladen grounds, approximately 80 miles south-east of the Shetland Isles. With nearly 5-metre swell waves and gusts of up to 50 knots (57 mph), our survey work is being severely hampered. It’s unsafe to use either our grabs or the towed camera sledge in these conditions, so in the meantime we are attempting to collect multi-beam acoustic (echo sounder) data, to determine the depth and shape of the sea floor. Otherwise all we can do is sit out the gale and keep busy checking the data already collected, catching the odd mug of tea as it attempts to fall over.

Taking in the breeze from the bridge of the Cefas Endeavour (JNCC/Cefas).

Cefas Endeavour heads through rather than over a wave (JNCC/Cefas).

The bird life around us is either loving or hating these conditions. Gannets, fulmars and kittiwakes are in their element, while a couple of much smaller birds have sought refuge on (or even inside) the ship.

Gannets Morus bassanus have been cruising past, unfazed by the conditions (JNCC/Cefas).

Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla have been wheeling around the stern of the ship during the bad weather (JNCC/Cefas).
This meadow pipit Anthus pratensis turned up inside the ship but proved pretty nifty on a computer, so we put it to work on some acoustic data checking (JNCC/Cefas).

Thursday 20 March 2014

Swallow Sand reveals its muddier side

Our second destination was Swallow Sand Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) in the northern North Sea. Our objective here was to determine the area of mud habitat occurring on the sea bed, in a site that is otherwise dominated by sand (as the name suggests!) and coarser sediments such as gravels. We arrived on Sunday afternoon and after setting about taking samples of the seabed, we quickly struck mud.

The seabed samples were taken with a heavy device called a ‘mini’ hamon grab, which captures a small (0.1 m-sq) scoop of sediment and brings it back up to the surface. Once on deck we store a small part of this sample for sediment analysis (which will take place in a laboratory) and sieve the remainder to recover any organisms. These specimens will be analysed later to determine the type of biological community that occurs at that point on the seabed.

A ‘mini’ hamon grab (right) on board RV Cefas Endeavour (JNCC/Cefas)

Plenty of shells were coming up in shelly mud samples (JNCC/Cefas)

An unexpectedly good find in one of our grabs was an ocean quahog Arctica islandica. This mollusc is one of several special species in UK waters that the MCZ network is aiming to protect (see pg. 5661 for more information). These are long-lived animals (often living for several centuries if left undisturbed) so if they suffer population reductions they can take a very long time to recover.

An ocean quahog Arctica islandica. This one had a quick trip up on deck and
then was returned to its home, 80 m below (JNCC/Cefas).
Using our 66 seabed samples we can now get a better understanding of where muddy sediments occur in the north-west of Swallow Sand MCZ. We also deployed a camera sledge at 15 locations for further confirmation and to record the sea life in this habitat. This revealed our first langoustine Nephrops norvegicus of the trip (known to many as scampi), and many Nephrops burrows indicative of this burrowed mud habitat.

A sea cucumber, possibly the pink spotted sea cucumber Psolus phantapus (JNCC/Cefas).

Our camera flash exposed an otherwise extremely camouflaged angler fish
(or monkfish) Lophius piscatorius (JNCC/Cefas).

Some of the regular residents in this environment: common starfish Asterias rubens, with anemone hermit crab Pagurus prideaux (top left), phosphorescent sea pen Pennatula phosphorea (middle left) and the soft coral known as dead men’s fingers Alcyonium digitatum (bottom left) (JNCC/Cefas).

Monday 17th was of course St. Patrick’s Day and with several Irish men and women on board there was a celebratory atmosphere. Leading the proceedings was Terry, the ship’s Master and Paul, our Scientist in Charge. A colourful cake the size of Ireland was amongst the festivities and quickly devoured.

The ship’s mess, Scientist in Charge (left) and Master (right) took on a colourful appearance for St. Patrick’s Day. Guinness (like all alcohol) is forbidden on board though! (JNCC/Cefas)

Monday 17 March 2014

And we’re off

The survey set off from Lowestoft at around 6pm on Thursday 13th March with 16 scientific crew, three JNCC scientists (Neil, Michelle and Hugh) and 13 Cefas scientists along with 16 crew members.  While the weather was damp and foggy it didn't impede our departure.

The Cefas Endeavour leaving Lowestoft in fog (David Haverson)
We had a fair steam to our first survey location, Farnes East recommended MCZ (rMCZ), so we busied ourselves getting the scientific instruments set up on board and getting ready and prepped for a busy three weeks survey ahead; you can get through a lot of sample pots in three weeks and each one needs a label! We also heard a rumour that St. Patrick’s Day will be celebrated on March 17th - so watch this space.

After the obligatory muster drill, we arrived on site at Farnes East rMCZ on the afternoon of 14th March – just as the weather started to pick up. We planned to collect information on the rocky habitats within the rMCZ, so the camera drop frame was our sampling technique of choice to record video footage and snapshots of the seabed.  We were also using a location beacon on the camera frame, which tells the vessel where it is in relation to the vessel when it is suspended off the side of the boat just above the seabed.

We've shown some example pictures below of the creatures and seabed habitats we've seen in Farnes East rMCZ.

Outcropping bedrock covered with brittlestars (Ophiothrix fragilis).  You can also see the sea urchin (Echinus esculentus) and the long-clawed squat lobster (Munida rugosa) (JNCC/Cefas).

Boulder reef with a faunal turf.  You can see an edible crab (Cancer pagurus) in a crevice (JNCC/Cefas). 

Boulders and cobbles with a spider crab perched on one (JNCC/Cefas).

The seamouse (Aphrodita aculeata) crawling across an area of sediment (JNCC/Cefas).

A bedrock ledge with a carpet of brittlestars (Ophiothrx fragilis) and the anemone Bolocera.(JNCC/Cefas)

Cryptic marine life at Farnes East rMCZ: can you spot the spider crab and cup coral (Caryophilia smithii) (JNCC/Cefas).

A hidden gem: the brightly coloured nudibranch Flabellina pedata (JNCC/Cefas).

Adjacent to the areas of reef, we found muddy plains characterised by the seapen Pennatula phosphorea – so called because it can produce brilliant flashes of light when touched at night (JNCC/Cefas).

With our resident ornithologist Hugh on board, when he’s been ‘off shift’, he’s been keeping an eye on the local bird life.  Puffins, gannets, little auks, and the occasional harbour porpoise have kept him busy with his bins.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Survey to Swallow Sands MCZ, Farnes East rMCZ and the Fladen Grounds

On the 13th March 2014 a 19 day survey commenced aboard the RV Cefas Endeavour to Farnes East rMCZ and Swallow Sand MCZ in English offshore waters and the Fladen Grounds in Scottish offshore waters. The survey will both be collecting evidence to underpin development of MCZ advice to Government and, in Scottish waters, collecting evidence for Scottish Government to better understand feature condition (especially seapen and burrowing megafaunal communities) across a surface abrasion pressure gradient.

Farnes East rMCZ is a site which is currently being considered within a second tranche of MCZs to be designated in 2015. The survey will visit the site in the northern North Sea to collect data to verify the presence of moderate energy circalittoral rock and peat and clay exposures within the site. Swallow Sand MCZ is the largest of all recommended MCZs, and was designated in November 2013. The survey to Swallow Sand MCZ also located in the northern North Sea will collect evidence to better determine the spatial extent of mud within the north-west corner of the site.

Within the Fladen Grounds, three possible Nature Conservation MPAs were consulted on in summer 2013; Central Fladen pMPA, Western Fladen pMPA and South-east Fladen pMPA. These areas have been identified to protect components of the feature ‘Burrowed mud’. The Central Fladen pMPA includes seapens and burrowing megafauna and the tall sea pen Funiculina quadrangularis, with Western and South-east Fladen pMPAs identified as science-based alternatives to the representation of the seapens and burrowing megafauna contained within the Central Fladen pMPA. Burrowed mud habitats can contain a range of creatures like seapens (a type of soft coral), fireworks anemones, amphipods and burrowing megafauna such as the Dublin Bay Prawn Nephrops norvegicus. Scottish Ministers will make decisions on designation of pMPAs following consideration of the consultation responses.