Geography, Earth and environment at Brighton

crabs and lobster baskets at the beach

Study probes sharp fall in Sussex crab and lobster catch

University of Brighton experts are investigating a steep decline in the catch of crab and lobster in key fishing waters off Selsey in West Sussex.

Three female researchers at the beachDr Heidi Burgess is working alongside University of Brighton students as part of the CHASM (Crustaceans, Habitat And Sediment Movement) Project, in partnership with Chichester District Council, the Channel Coastal Observatory, and University of Southampton. The project is also supported by over 20 national, regional, and local environmental organisations with interests in the marine environment.

The CHASM study focuses on the waters around the Manhood Peninsula coastline, following concerns raised by the fishermen of Selsey Bill, who wanted to know why they were catching so few crabs and lobsters compared with ten years ago. They also reported a huge increase in the amount of sediment locally.

Crabs and lobsters play a key role both economically and environmentally. They are ecosystem engineers, increasing biodiversity and plankton production in the ocean, which in turn plays an important role in locking atmospheric greenhouse gases and carbon in the ocean. The reduction of local kelp stocks – an important element of carbon absorption in the ocean – is significant too.

The CHASM project will develop and deliver initiatives to understand environmental changes affecting the marine environment and the fishing industry, while raising awareness of the issues. The importance of this work was acknowledged by Sir David Attenborough, who wrote to show his support for the CHASM study.

The sharp decline in crab and lobster catch – and changes to other marine species – appears to coincide with major changes in the fishing grounds and general nearshore marine environment. The CHASM project team are working to understand more about the changes, why they have happened, and how they might be mitigated.

A number of possible factors are being considered, including the impact of human activities and climate change. Two of the most important questions are whether pollution (metals, trace elements and other chemicals) is impacting crustaceans, and whether interactions between sediment and other marine life are also playing a role.

Dr Heidi Burgess, Principal Lecturer in the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Brighton, said: “This important work is enabling us to better understand how some of the different elements which make up the near-shore marine environment interact, and how human activities may have been impacting on the functioning of the eco-system.

Dr Charlie Thompson, from the Channel Coastal Observatory and University of Southampton, added: “The CHASM project is a wonderful example of what can be achieved through the collaborative efforts of a wide range of researchers, practitioners and the local community to address and understand the changes happening in the coastal environment.

Cllr Penny Plant, Cabinet Member for the Environment at Chichester District Council, said: “Fishing has been an important part of the economy in Selsey for generations. Over the past 10 years, the local fishing community has noticed huge changes in the marine environment. This project aims to understand the changes that have taken place and the reasons for this. It will also look to identify solutions to ensure the sustainability of both the fishing industry and the marine environment.”

The Selsey fishery has a long history – first recorded by the ancient historian Bede in 730AD – and is of huge cultural significance locally, with individual fishing families tracing their roots back over 1000 years. Many local fishermen continue to use traditional pots to catch crab and lobster, alongside catching fin fish, whelks and cuttlefish according to season.

Watch a video about the CHASM Project on YouTube.

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Stephanie Thomson • September 29, 2022


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