Studland boat party scrapped after seahorse protest

Poole-based boat tour company, Dorset Cruises’ decision to cancel its planned boat party soirée among the seahorse breeding ground in Studland Bay, has been met with relief from conservationists.

The site is regarded as one of the most important international sites for seahorses in Europe.

The company normally offers trips along the south coast on its 1938 vintage motor yacht, Dorset Queen but due to coronavirus restrictions hasn’t been operating. With lockdown easing, it thought it had come up with a good way to host a party keeping in line with the social distancing guidelines.

Boats moored at Studland

Boats moored in Studland Bay

Soirée on the Sea

Billed as a ‘Soirée on the Sea’, the idea was to provide drink and food on the yacht that would then be delivered by jet ski to other boats that had gathered for the event. A DJ from Hot Radio was also booked to broadcast music to the surrounding pleasure cruisers.

The south end of Studland Bay was the chosen location for the boats to gather but unknown to the organisers at the time, the bay was designated by the government as a Marine Conservation Zone in May 2019 to help, among other things, protect the declining numbers of seahorses in the area.

Seahorse at Studland
Kim Maidment

Spiny Seahorse photographed in Studland Bay since the easing of lockdown

Damage to the seagrass beds by boat anchors

Studland Bay is predominantly home to the Spiny Seahorse but the UK’s other native seahorse, the Short-snouted Seahorse has also been spotted. Their existence is threatened by the damage done to the seagrass beds – the seahorses’ natural breeding ground – by boat anchors.

The mooring chains scrape across the grass on the seabed with the movement of the tide, causing the grass to be uprooted. Similarly a boat’s dropped anchor can bring up the seagrass with it, when it is lifted.

During lockdown with pleasure boats banned from sailing and unable to drop anchor in Studland, the seagrass beds were recovering and a survey by the Seahorse Trust found to their delight that seahorses numbers were increasing. Since diving has been able to recommence, the team has identified 46 individual Spiny Seahorses from youngsters to fully mature creatures with the largest being 20 cms long.

Seahorse at Studland
Kim Maidment

Deeply upsetting to the Seahorse Trust

However the news of the boat party, that aimed to attract a large number of pleasure craft to the area, was deeply upsetting to the Seahorse Trust which anticipated that the event could destroy all the progress made over the last few months.

Through emails and social media the Seahorse Trust urged its supporters to contact Dorset Cruises to think again about going ahead with their plans.

Fortunately, when the owner of Dorset Cruises, Jon Morgan realised the damage that could be done, he quickly acted to postpone the event and to rearrange it for another location.

“We will of course, move the event in light of the information we have gleaned today”

In a post on social media Jon Morgan said:

“We have only become aware this morning that Studland Bay is home to protected Seahorses and of course we don’t want to cause any harm to our environment or local wild/marine life. We will of course, move the event in light of the information we have gleaned today.

“We were simply trying to create a fun event to give people something to look forward to after the past few months of restrictions and to kick start our summer after Covid-19 nearly put us out of business. Please forgive our blind enthusiasm, which meant we didn’t think to check on marine life residing in the bay.

“Hopefully a positive to come out of this is that private boat owners who were likewise unaware, now are aware and that should help protect the seahorses for many years to come.

“Education is key and hopefully a lot of us have learnt something about the wildlife in Studland Bay today. Watch this space whilst we rethink the plans for Soirée on the Sea.

Seahorse at Studland
Kim Maidment

“…understanding the gravity of this situation”

The founder of the Seahorse Trust, Neil Garrick-Maidment responded to the news. He said:

“Brilliant team work – thank you to everyone involved including Jon from Dorset Cruises and his crew, who realised the problem after we brought it to their attention and reacted quickly to solve it. We fully understand the need for them to reboot their business and we wish them all well in their ventures. I thank them for fully understanding the gravity of this situation.”

The Seahorse Trust has been studying the seahorses in Studland over many years and all its work is done under license from the Marine Management Organisation. Anyone who is diving or snorkelling and intending to search for seahorses or to do something likely to disturb seahorses such as taking photographs or filming must by law, apply for a wildlife licence.

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