Rare Seahorse found in Fal fishery – proof that sustainable oyster fishing has a bright future

Seahorses are extremely rare in Cornish waters, and very rarely recorded. Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Marine Officer, Matt Slater, came face to face with one while helping on a survey of the Fal oyster beds being run by Cornwall Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA).

The annual oyster survey monitors the catch rates of oysters and other shellfish giving an indication of the health of the estuary. Finding a rare seahorse adds to growing evidence that the Fal estuary, with its well managed sustainable fishery, is still productive and in reasonable health.

Matt Slater says,

“I had heard that oyster fishers occasionally see seahorses but didn’t want to even hope that we might see one as the chances are so small. However, just an hour into the survey and Cornwall IFCA’s, Principle Scientific Officer Colin Trundle, yelled out ‘seahorse!’ and sure enough this little beauty had come up in the dredge. We were all amazed!”

The seahorse was identified as a female, short-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus). It was photographed and then swiftly returned unharmed to the sea in the same position that it was found.

Short snouted seahorse Hippocampus hippocampus, during survey, by Matt Slater

There was a real buzz of excitement aboard Cornwall IFCA’s research boat ‘Tiger Lily VI’. The annual survey, carried out by Cornwall IFCA, records the numbers of oysters and other marine life on the Fal oyster fishery grounds and has been carried out every year by Cornwall IFCA since 2014.

A traditional, lightweight, oyster dredge is pulled along the seabed by the survey vessel and a 50m tow is carried out at each of 83 separate stations, giving a thorough survey of the oyster beds within Carrick roads and the higher reaches of the estuary. This was the first seahorse ever to be found during the survey.

Oyster populations have been shown to be following normal cycles of abundance on the beds showing that the Fal fishery is operating sustainably. In addition to the native oysters, there has been a marked increase in numbers of queen scallops (Chalmys varia) which are now being harvested by the fishermen and make a great alternative to the larger king scallop which are mainly harvested by more damaging mechanised scallop dredging.

The beauty of the Fal oyster (and queen scallop) fishery is the fact that this fishery was effectively frozen in time by forward thinking fisheries managers who, in 1936, banned the use of engines or any other power source except sail, oar and human muscle; the only fishery of its kind in Europe. The result has been the continuation of a traditional fishery and a way of life. While other native oyster fisheries around Europe have collapsed, the Fal fishery has remained viable and has a bright future.

Fal queen scallop with juveniles Cornwall IFCA

Matt Slater continued,

“In Cornwall, we are fortunate to have several good examples of sustainable fisheries, like this one. Lovers of seafood are spoilt for choice, but we should all be careful when choosing what to buy and ensure that we go for sustainably harvested Cornish seafood. Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s online resource, ‘Cornwall Good Seafood Guide,’ is a great place to find information on all things fishy, including recommendations on what seafood to choose, what’s in season, how to cook it and where to buy it”.

“The Cornwall Good Seafood Guide is growing in influence within the county and beyond, with over 70 businesses now supporting us and using the logo to highlight sustainable Cornish seafood on their menus, packaging and fish counters. We are also delighted to announce that we have received a further funding boost from the European Marine and Fisheries Fund, which will be used to build on our work to highlight sustainable fishing practices, to work with fishermen and chefs to incentivise continued improvement in fishing practice, better marketing and to encourage everyone to buy sustainable Cornish seafood.”

You can find out more about the Cornwall Good Seafood Guide online at www.cornwallgoodseafoodguide.org.uk