Friday 29 July 2016

SCANS 3 - searching for seabirds in little known waters

While Mark T stood on the bow, making up part of the cetacean survey team, myself and Paul French enjoyed much more comfort, in an observation box in a lofty position (8.5 m) on the monkey island, from where we carried out our seabird observations. This is our view of Mark T (on the left) as he and Darren carried out their primary observer duties.

Primary observers at work

We were collecting data using the ESAS method, to a standard that will be compatible with the ESAS database. This means that the data will contribute to a database that contains over 3 million records of seabirds, with the first data collected as long ago as 1979. In spite of the fact that a lot of seabird surveys now use digital aerial methods, the ESAS database remains a hugely valuable resource on the distribution and relative densities of seabirds at sea in north west European waters. Adding the data collected on this survey is particularly important as data are relatively sparse over much of the area that we covered on SCANS 3. The figure below shows the locations of all of the ESAS data points (each tiny grey dot), and how sparsely they are distributed in our more western waters. The black line represents the coverage achieved during the first part of SCANS 3.

The distribution of ESAS data within (and beyond) the UK EEZ, before the SCANS 3 data were entered.

As the area was so data poor, Paul and I were hoping for a few surprises. Although the hoped for rarity didn't materialize, we saw plenty of interesting birds. See the next post in the for a summary of some of the great pelagic birds that we encountered!

Wednesday 27 July 2016

SCANS 3 - Setting the scene

Mark Tasker and Mark Lewis have traveled far beyond the shelf edge north and west of Scotland, to take part in SCANS 3. This is the third in a series of Europe-wide, large-scale ship and aerial surveys to study the distribution and abundance of cetaceans in European Atlantic waters. Mark T is part of the dedicated cetacean observation team, with Mark L, along with Paul French (who very kindly volunteered his time, as well as a substantial proportion of his stash of Werther's Originals) making the most of an opportunity to collect bird data in what is a relatively data poor part of UK waters. The cetacean data will improve our understanding of these animal's occurrence throughout the survey area, as well as giving insight into any population changes, when used alongside data collected from previous surveys in 1994 and 2005. The seabird data will be added to the ESAS (European Seabirds at Sea) database, which has long been used to inform marine management, has been used extensively in the process of delivering marine SPAs (special protection areas), and is a valuable resource that can be made available for academic or other management purposes.

The first part of the survey saw us heading north and west of the Outer Hebrides, where we steamed transects through the areas coloured beige, and numbered 7 and 8 on the map below. This was a long journey from Aberdeen, but time was well spent, calibrating our very technical survey kit, gathering data along the way, and taking the opportunity to spot some of the most remote parts of the UK, such as North Rona, and Sules Skerry and Stack.

Map of the SCANS 3 survey blocks

Sule Skerry - part of the Sule Skerry and Sule Stack SPA

After completing these areas, Mark T has headed down to survey beige area 9 (I'm sure it's a lot more interesting than that makes it sound!) with the rest of the cetacean team. Mark L and Paul made use of a port call in Cork to return to land and head back to civilization having completed as much data collection as they could within UK waters. I'll soon be posting a few more details on the work that we were doing, and some of the incredible things that we saw.

Watch this space!

Monday 25 July 2016

It’s all about Betty
We have now completed our first four night shifts of box coring within the Geikie Slide and the Hebridean Slope Nature Conservation MPA. We have affectionately named our box corer companion Betty. Betty is a piece of equipment that can be used in deep-sea muds to extract a sample of the seabed in an intact state, retaining the structure of the sediment, and giving us a ‘snapshot’ of the seabed hundreds of meters below sea level (you can see a picture of Betty being deployed on the previous blog entry).
We have been sampling at a range of depths from 600 to 950 meters - the deeper areas can sometimes take half an hour for Betty to reach the seabed. Once Betty returns to the surface we wait with baited breath to see whether she has managed to collect a valid sample. When this gets the thumbs up, the team can start processing. Processing can take up to three hours depending on the habitat type - some of the mud we are encountering is very thick and sticky! The top 15cm of sediment is extracted from Betty and goes through an automated siever called the Wilson Auto Siever (WAS). We also start to sieve by hand to speed up the process. This removes fine material (i.e. mud and clay), leaving us with the important critters that were living both on and in the seabed. These will be sent off to a lab for identification once we return to dry land.
You may think the night shift staff drew the short straw having to work from midnight to midday, but there are actually some positives to sieving on deck through the night
  1. being in the fresh sea air;
  2. seeing the sun both set and rise;
  3. enjoying your morning coffee accompanied by whales, seabirds and sunfish;
  4. finding cool deep-sea animals in the samples.
More on these in our next blog!                                                                                                  
The night shift staff doing what they do best: sieving!
© JNCC/MSS (2016)
Two sunfish surrounded by Fulmars on the surface.
© JNCC/MSS (2016)
A baleen whale sighted in the distance.
© JNCC/MSS (2016)

Thursday 21 July 2016

Survey work begins on the mid-point of the Hebridean Slope
It’s 7.30pm on 19th July and we have just arrived on site to begin our survey work within the Geikie Slide and Hebridean Slope Nature Conservation MPA. With the camera drop-frame all rigged up, we begin the descent into depths of our first priority area; positioned in approximately 600 to 800m of water on the mid-point of the Hebridean Slope.
Having ‘bagged’ just five 150m-long camera tows of seabed imagery, the first thing we noticed was just how diverse these sampling stations less than a few miles apart can actually be at this depth; from fine sandy muds pitted with burrows of crustaceans, to coarser sediments where feeding tracks of echinoderms and an abundance of tiny brittlestars can be seen. We were also greeted by a number of deep-water fish species including Molva sp. and Lophius sp. In one particular shot of a lonely boulder we found an abundance of life; including large barnacles feeding, pencil urchins and anemones.
As midnight approached, it was time to try our hand at the box coring, a sampling technique that allows us to take a sample of the seabed for more detailed analysis. More to follow on this in our next blog instalment! Stay tuned...

Box corer deployment. © JNCC/MSS (2016)

Monkfish (Lophius sp) on coarse sediment. © JNCC/MSS (2016)
Abundant brittlestars on coarse sediment. © JNCC/MSS (2016)

                                       Boulder with squat lobster, anemones, pencil urchins                                          and feeding barnacles. © JNCC/MSS (2016)

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Geikie Sliders are go!

JNCC and Marine Scotland Science staff set sail on the RV Scotia on the morning of Monday 18th July for a 17 day scientific survey to establish the first point in monitoring time series at Geikie Slide and Hebridean Slope Nature Conservation MPA. The MPA, one of the 30 Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) designated in July 2014, is located on the Hebridean continental slope; north-west of the Outer Hebrides.
The MPA, which in part is named after the famous Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie, is designated to protect a range of sedimentary habitat types that are home to a diverse array of marine animals.
What is particularly special about this site from a biological viewpoint is the way that marine animals present on the Hebridean slope change with depth. On the upper slope where sediments are much coarser, we may expect to survey communities typical of rocky reefs such as sponges and crinoids (e.g. feather stars). Further down into the murky depths of the site towards the Rockall Trough, we can expect to find muddier habitats where communities of the bushy sea pen and large burrowing crustaceans call this environment their home.
In this relatively data limited site, we plan to use a combination of video tows to better characterise the range of communities present across different depth zones within the site, as well as taking samples of the seabed using a grabbing device known as a box corer. Having completed a successful ‘wet test’ of the equipment near Fraserburgh, the survey team are now all set to spring into action once we reach our survey destination: ETA 7pm on 19th July.
Further information on the Geikie Slide and Hebridean Slope Nature Conservation MPA is available on JNCC’s Site Information Centre.
© JNCC (2016)