Safe haven

Words by Nane Steinhoff
Photographs by Neil Garrick-Maidment
Additional Photographs by Ross Young


Soft, white sands and swaying seagrass meadows filled with fishes, a multitude of crabs and cuttlefish. What might initially sound like we’re in the middle of the Bahamas (minus the prevailing temperature), actually turns out to be the United Kingdom’s south coast. We are in Studland Bay in Devon to find out more about the elusive spiny seahorse which calls this bay its home. As seahorses aren’t known to be the best swimmers, Studland Bay’s shallow seagrass beds act as a great habitat for these small fish. They hide, feed, mate and breed here, rendering the bay the most important spiny seahorse site in the United Kingdom.

The spiny seahorse, often also called thorny or long-snouted seahorse, lives in coastal waters where it clings onto seaweed and seagrass to not get swept away into deeper water columns. They feed on plankton and shrimp and are closely related to sea dragons and pipefish. The species is known to practice monogamy, but the long-established notion that they mate for life, might not any longer be true.

Sadly, the spiny seahorse is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, mainly due to its decreasing population numbers. In the UK, the species best identified by the fleshy mane on its neck and back, is a so-called Priority Species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework and protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 2008, which means that they are not allowed to be killed, injured or taken.

Neil Garrick-Maidment, founder and executive director of The Seahorse Trust, a non-profit organisation seeking to protect seahorses in the UK and beyond, says that Studland Bay is “without a doubt, the most important site for spiny seahorses in the UK and potentially throughout Europe.” He adds: “As a known breeding area, Studland Bay’s protection is critical for the future of the species.” In May of 2019, Studland Bay was designated as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) on the basis of its seagrass meadows.

However, even though the area is a Marine Conservation Zone on paper, there is still one big problem standing in the way of conservation efforts: Studland Bay is located on a popular coastline that attracts around 1.5 million annual visitors, many of them coming by boat and anchoring in the seagrass habitats.

While The Seahorse Trust recorded 40 seahorse sightings in Studland Bay in 2008, only four were seen in 2013 and in 2014, only one specimen was documented. “Seahorses are affected by noise, pollution and habitat fragmentation, and unfortunately all of this is happening at Studland Bay,” Garrick-Maidment explains. While inexperienced boaters would drop their anchors in sensitive sea grass habitats, others would go on illegal dives to take photographs of the seahorses. “In particular, Studland’s spiny seahorses have not done very well this year in large part due to the sheer volume of boats visiting the site this year – up to 450 on some days.”

The first lockdown outlined what could happen to the seahorse population if the bay gets properly protected and sees smaller human impact. As less boats and visitors flocked to Studland throughout the first stretch of the pandemic, conservationists spotted an unprecedented 46 seahorses on a survey dive right after the first lockdown.

But as lockdown rules eased and people started to visit the UK’s beaches again, the direct impact on seahorses was quick to show. Garrick-Maidment says: “Sadly, this year it dropped to just six as the population comes under pressure from overuse of the site.” These sightings show a clear relationship between human impact and seahorse population numbers. However, simply stopping people to use the site is not realistic in a normal context. So, how do you bring tourism and conservation to work in unison to benefit not only the species in Studland Bay, but also humans that enjoy the nature and wildlife in the area?

To answer this question, The Seahorse Trust teamed up with the national marina group boatfolk to deliver a practical solution for protecting Studland’s unique marine environment. In a not-for-profit scheme, the two organisations put ten ‘eco-moorings’ into Studland Bay to give boaters an environmentally friendly alternative to dropping their anchors. After all, the dropping of anchors has damaging consequences for seabed environments including seagrass meadows. This is a significant concern as seagrass provides essential habitat for species including seahorses and also stores up to twice as much carbon per hectare as terrestrial forests, playing a major role in keeping climate change in check.

The benefits of eco-moorings are well-documented. They involve a helical screw anchor being driven into the seabed. An elastic rode is then attached, connecting the anchor system with the mooring buoy. The elastic rode will stretch at higher tides and contract at lower tides meaning that none of the equipment scours the seagrass around it. The moorings also provide a hassle-free option for boaters, saving them the trouble of having to drop their own anchors (which can often drag before taking a hold and leave the boat owner to clean the equipment afterwards).

Through this simple yet effective solution, Garrick-Maidment hopes “to allow the habitat to restore to favourable conditions and the food chain to recover.” “An added benefit of eco-moorings is that the area is quieter, which is particularly vital as noise disturbs seahorses and the stress from noise can kill them. We hope eventually to install enough eco-moorings to take the pressure off the site, allowing the seagrass to grow back and knit together, creating a fully and complete ecosystem to the benefit of all marine life.”

Michael Prideaux, managing director of boatfolk explains: “We know our industry has an impact on the environment and that not enough is being done to raise awareness and change behaviours. Our goal isn’t to stop people boating. In fact, it’s the opposite. By making changes now we want to ensure that the coastline and oceans remain a place that can be enjoyed for generations to come. Providing an alternative option at Studland that protects this incredible marine environment is about doing the right thing for boaters and for our planet.”

The coexistence of tourism and conservation efforts could work if careful management is implemented. “There is no doubt that ecotourism – ‘the green pound’ – is vital to any area that is outstandingly beautiful or home to fascinating marine life. We know that many people visit Studland Bay each year because of the seahorses and other marine life,” says Garrick-Maidment. “Both the designation of the Bay as a Marine Conservation Zone in 2019 and our recent installation of ten eco-moorings are key steps, but there is still more to do.”

And more is being done. While the eco-moorings are currently being installed, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) has promised that old, existing moorings will only remain on the site until they need to be replaced. And then, they must be replaced with eco-moorings. Furthermore, boat owners won’t be able to anchor off South Beach from 17 December 2021 as a voluntary no anchor zone will be introduced to protect the eel grass around Studland Bay. From 1 June 2022 the zone will be extended further north and east and the MMO has warned that failing to comply with the no anchor zone might lead to the introduction of bylaws banning anchoring altogether.

It seems clear that eco-moorings are the way forward for Studland Bay as they don’t only let boaters continue enjoying the site, but also let rare seagrass meadows and crucial seahorse breeding grounds recover. “The designation of Studland Bay as a Marine Conservation Zone was a long-awaited and hugely significant moment in safeguarding UK seahorse populations. It is now vital that the area is effectively protected and that everyone who uses the bay does so responsibly and sustainably,” concludes Garrick-Maidment.

Photographs by Neil Garrick-Maidment
Additional Photographs by Ross Young