Citizen science pinpointed the first samples of a rare kelp in Irish waters, and now NUI Galway researchers are hoping that sea swimmers, divers and kayakers may help to find more writes Lorna Siggins
Samples of golden kelp (Laminaria ochroleuca), which is normally found in France, Spain and Britain, were identified for the first time almost a year ago in north Mayo.
The small population was discovered in Scots Port cove on the north-west facing Belmullet coastline, and recognised by Dr Kathryn Schoenrock of NUI Galway’s (NUIG) Ryan Institute.
The dominant kelp species found in Irish waters is Cuvie (Laminaria Hyperborea), and five main types of kelp provide important habitats for marine life.
“Golden kelp, which harbours less biodiversity, is a really important species in Spain and Portugal,” Dr Schoenrock explained.
“We would have expected to find the first samples here on Ireland’s south-east coast, given the proximity to Britain, France and Spain,” she says.
Scots Port is located 1,040 kilometres away from the nearest golden kelp population in Britain, and 1,630 kilometres away from the nearest population in France.
Genetic analyses would suggest that the Co Mayo population is more diverse than the British, resembling the richness described for populations in the Iberian peninsula, Dr Schoenrock said.
“The fact that it was found in a small enclosed cove in north Mayo may be a result of a Portuguese or Spanish vessel sheltering nearby,” she says.
“However, it can drift long distances and it could be more prevalent than we know.”
The samples found by citizen science participants in a Searsearch Ireland and Porcupine survey trip were collected by Dr Stacy A Krueger-Hadfield for genetic analysis at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in North America.
The discovery was the subject of a study which had recently been published in the scientific journal, Marine Biodiversity Records.
Dr Schoenrock said that citizen science initiatives like Seasearch Ireland and Coastwatch are an “excellent way to involve local communities that have a vested interest in the health of these ecosystems”.
“In conjunction with existing research bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Parks and Wildlife Services, and the Marine Institute, we need more programmes that can sustain long term ecological research of shallow marine systems over many years,” she said.
Seasearch Ireland national co-ordinator Tony O’Callaghan said that its participants had collected over 50,000 records of over 1,000 species.
He said the data set is “the best continuous record collected since the last major state-funded study of Ireland’s inshore marine environment, the Biomar survey, which was in the 90s.”
This project is funded under the EPA Research Programme 2014-2020.
Given that golden kelp has much lower biodiversity than native kelp forests, it is more suitable kelp to harvest, Dr Schoenrock noted.
“It can grow to a larger size and it doesn’t dominate habitats yet in Ireland,” she said.
State approval in November 2017 of a license to harvest native kelp by mechanical means in Bantry Bay has aroused opposition on environmental grounds in West Cork and resulted in ongoing litigation.