When our Business Development Manager Kat Evans visited the beach at Burton Bradstock, Dorset, in late August, she found an amazing sight – the beach tideline was awash with whitebait.
Talking to other walkers and fishermen, she found out that this stretched along the coast intermittently to Abbotsbury over 6 miles away, possibly further. One walker informed her that she had seen the whitebait jumping out of the water as if being chased. A previous year, Kat’s sister had witnessed this phenomenon whilst swimming in the sea at the same location. Discussion with a fisherman on the beach, who was complaining of poor catches, said the phenomenon was due to mackerel ‘herding’ the whitebait.
The Ecology Consultancy’s marine fish expert, Dr Pia Orr comments:
‘Mass whitebait strandings are not uncommon on Dorset and Cornish beaches and observers report seeing shoals of whitebait herded into the shallows by their natural predators, mackerel and bass. In the UK the term “whitebait” generally refers to juvenile members of the herring family, in particular the European sprat (Sprattus sprattus). Sprat is a short-lived, highly-mobile, schooling species that widely distributed in inshore waters around Britain. The population size of sprat is strongly affected by environmental conditions and can fluctuate wildly from year to year. Fisheries researchers have shown that temperature plays a crucial role in the growth and development of sprat eggs and larvae but it is still to be established whether rising sea temperatures have contributed to an increase in the number of sprat in the Western Channel.’
Kat commented that it would be interesting to know whether a contributing factor could be the Lyme Regis Marine Protected Area (MPA) established in 2008, which is only around 10 miles away. Lyme Regis has the largest MPA in the UK with 60 square nautical miles closed to scallop dredging and bottom trawling.
Kat had also observed that that gulls appeared to ignore the tidal line of whitebait preferring to go out to sea.
Aaron Grainger, Ornithologist at our London Office, says, “despite the obvious source of food offered by the whitebait, it is possible that the reason the gulls were seemingly ignoring it is the presence of an alternative food source nearby. Most gulls are opportunistic feeders scavenging from landfills, carrion and also snatching prey from other birds. Despite their name, crustaceans and echinoderms have been shown to form a greater proportion of the stomach contents of herring gulls than fish, although during the breeding season, fish is frequently regurgitated for the nestlings”.
A Report from the BBC highlights that 2014 was an exceptional year for whitebait and it has been speculated that this is due to high sea temperatures and the effects of winter storms causing delays. Read this here.