I interviewed Bex Lynam, Marine Advocacy Manager for the North Sea Wildlife Trusts, about cetaceans off Yorkshire. Based with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT), the role covers 11 ‘North Sea’ Trusts and focuses on the implementation of marine conservation measures.
Bex explains that, while there has been progress in the creation of marine protected areas in the last 15 years, there is still little protection for species generally, including mobile species like cetaceans. YWT’s primary objective for cetaceans is data collection and, since 2019, it has partnered with Sea Watch Foundation conducting citizen science surveys to record sightings of species, including minke whales and bottlenose dolphins. The aim is to collect a long-term data set to establish a robust baseline so that changes in populations, distribution and behaviours can be detected and understood. This includes questions about bottlenose dolphins from Scotland’s Moray Firth spending more time off Yorkshire in recent years…
Can you tell me more about the monitoring of cetaceans off Yorkshire?
BL: Cetaceans are something that we knew were present in our waters and there was some existing but limited data. We needed to know more so that we can understand how species are doing: which animals are present, where and how are they spending their time? For example, why are the bottlenose dolphins visiting Yorkshire?
I’ve looked at data going back ten years and talked to a lot of local birders and a handful of fishers. It’s quite clear from the birders and their records that sightings of bottlenose dolphins with the frequency with which we’re now seeing them are relatively ‘new’ in the last five years or so. While that might not be particularly standardised science, I trust that. We’ve increased watching which could explain increased sightings, but researchers can statistically correct for observer effort bias. Many of the local birding community have a long record of watching the coast, some for several decades! Some are Sea Watch Observer volunteers and they’ve got a lot of experience and knowledge. They spend a long time watching – three, four hours at a time. It’s so impressive!
Is public knowledge about and engagement with cetaceans growing?
BL: Awareness of the presence of minke whales and the bottlenose dolphins is growing a lot. Stuart Baines [Sea Watch area co-ordinator] runs the Facebook page Scarborough Porpoise with roughly 65,000 followers. More and more people are realising that bottlenose dolphins are not just a tropical species and do reside here too.
People are coming to do [Yorkshire Coast Nature] trips from all over, not just Yorkshire. They’re quite astounded that you can see these species here. The advantage is that they’re charismatic and relatively reliably seen at different times in the year. I’ve also made some logoed vests for our network of surveyors on the coast. It’s a subtle tool but has been a great way of engaging the public. People ask them what they’re doing and our surveyors explain their role. If they’re really lucky, surveyors will point out passing cetaceans. I think this gives the volunteers as much delight as the passing walkers!
We’ve also done quite a bit of media. We’ve been able to take out the BBC and show them minke whales on a rare, very calm evening out on the North Sea. You could hear the minke whales as they surfaced before you saw them it was so quiet.
What’s the importance of regional collaboration?
BL: Our primary objective is data collection, but an important secondary outcome is education and awareness, and there’s strength in partnership working. It pays to hear different perspectives and interact with different groups. We’ve started with working with the local wildlife tourism operators, including Yorkshire Coast Nature. It’s great that we’ve got whales and dolphins in our coastal waters, it’s bringing more tourism and greater awareness of cetaceans and other marine wildlife. You never forget the first time you see a dolphin or a whale, it’s a magical experience!
At the same time, it’s critical that wildlife tourism is done sustainably so that the animals’ wellbeing always comes first. In 2021, we paid for tour operators to attend a course run by WiSe about minimising disturbance to marine and coastal animals. The accreditation is well recognised and has a commercial benefit because operators can say, ‘We’ve undertaken training and follow this code of conduct.’
Still feeling elated after a wonderful evening boat trip with @YorksWildlife & @SeaWatchersUK #cetacean recording vols off the #Yorkshire coast with @realstaithes. Treated to spectacular views of #bottlenosedolphins off Whitby Pier – engine off they swam right next to the boat! pic.twitter.com/o76L6XxyeF— Bex Lynam (@rebeccalynam18) August 11, 2021
Being on and in the water is all about giving the animals choice rather than forcing interactions and causing the animals to behave in ways that result in stress and distract from vital behaviours such as feeding. I’ve been fortunate to go on whale watching trips in various places across the world. I’ve seen the full spectrum: really well run to very poorly run where the impact on the animals is not considered. An incredibly sad sight was when I went to view blue whales. As soon as a whale came up to breathe, tens of boats rushed towards it at full speed and it dived immediately.
The key is ensuring that we don’t get to that point where animals are experiencing huge pressures and then backtrack. So, we try and work with vessel skippers wherever possible. Many have spent their lives at sea; they’ve got a lot of knowledge and stories that we can all learn from. At least three tourism operators in this region are ex-fishermen, or they still do a little bit of fishing but they’ve diversified, which is brilliant. The skippers talk to each other while on the water and they ‘spread the load’, spacing out across groups of cetaceans when they can to minimise any disturbance.
What’s it like working with different interest groups?
BL: The groups we’ve worked with are very keen and proactive. People are generally warm to the idea of capturing more data. I want to work with more groups (particularly ‘vessels of opportunity’) to get those ad hoc sightings recorded. One challenge for fishers and others operating at sea is that they often don’t have time to be inputting data on an app! We need to find ways to make it as easy as possible for people to record what they see. It’s important to recognise everyone’s right to be out there and the need for coexistence amongst people and wildlife. As humans, we often put ourselves first rather than always recognising that we’re part of nature. The more we can encourage people to share the space sensitively, the better the outcomes for people and wildlife.
What are the main threats to cetaceans and other marine life in the North Sea?
BL: Climate change is an obvious one. We expect ranges of species to shift, not necessarily because of the lack of tolerance. It may be that a bottlenose dolphin can physically tolerate warmer waters, but their prey may move. That’s the challenge for much of our marine life. Also, the impacts of development and everything it brings; for example, destruction or damage of habitats, which impacts the prey.
Noise is an important one, particularly for toothed whales (odontocetes) because they’re echolocating and loud noises can interfere. Chemical pollution running off the land into the sea and accumulating is presenting problems, especially in larger mammals in which some substances can bioaccumulate. We know marine pollution has affected the population of orcas off Scotland; they’re full of PCBs and we think that’s preventing them from reproducing. Plastics pollution presents an entanglement and/or ingestion threat. I think we know pollution is doing a lot of damage but I don’t think we fully understand the scale yet. The North Sea is becoming more industrialised; it’s supporting our quality of life in different ways – food, transport, raw materials and energy – but we need to ensure activities are done sustainably with the least impact on wildlife possible.
Is disturbance to cetaceans an increasing concern?
BL: Some disturbance to wildlife is caused by unregulated activities that don’t require a licence. We don’t really know what disturbance levels are because of this. People might capture instances on camera, as happened in 2021 when a speedboat was driving at a relatively high speed and scattered a group of dolphins off Scarborough. They’ve been fined and that’s the first conviction for disturbing a dolphin that we’re aware of. We hope that we can educate first and fines are only used as a last resort. The other activity creating disturbances is the use of personalised watercraft. Yorkshire Marine Nature Partnership has worked with this community to promote using a code of conduct.
It’s the cumulative impact of disturbance that is most concerning. Imagine you’re a seal trying to sleep on the beach. If someone wanders over and taps you on the shoulder, that disturbs you once that day. But if someone is disturbing you every five minutes, you don’t sleep. And on top of that, you can’t hear well underwater anymore, you haven’t got as much food, and the temperature is steadily changing. There’s a synergistic impact of so many human activities on wildlife.
Then comes along the stuff we can’t control. Avian flu is a good example. There are natural events that can devastate populations. We think of those recreational impacts as being relatively minor, but I think it would be wrong to assume it’s inconsequential. It’s tough to tackle but needs some attention. We want people to take trips to the sea. We want people to know what awesome wildlife we’ve got because, arguably, they are more likely to take action for it. But we need to ensure that people are aware of how to behave around wildlife. We’re working on being proactive rather than reactive.
How can broader support for protections for cetaceans be achieved?
BL: I would love Yorkshire to be well-known for playing host to these animals. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have people visiting and being proud to live here because of these species? From a very economic view, I want cetaceans to stick around so that people can make a living out of watching whales and wider wildlife and want to protect them. Some people think in more matter-of-fact ways; for example, ‘Why should we care if they disappear?’
When the Dasgupta review came out (2019 economic assessment of nature) a lot of people said, ‘It shouldn’t be about what nature can do for us, it has a right to exist’. I agree on a personal level, but we’ve got to speak the language of economists, who, when talking about the costs of conservation measures, can quite accurately quantify the cost of disrupting businesses, etc. When it comes to quantifying the economic benefits of protecting that habitat or species, very little data exists and with good reason. How do you quantify the benefits of a group of dolphins?
Dolphins, seagrass beds, a peatland – there’s huge economic benefit in protecting all those things. The cost to society of removing them can be huge. Putting it back later down the line is the really expensive route or becomes impossible. Those assessments have been done across the world for the whale watching industry. Unfortunately, we’ve got to speak that language for economists and policymakers. We’ve got to make them realise that we’re much better off in every respect – environmentally, economically and socially – by protecting what we’ve got.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The original audio and transcription will be archived open access in the University of Leeds Repository for future research.