Horse mackerel

Scientists from the University of Plymouth are leading new research using innovative acoustic tracking technology to explore the importance of offshore aquaculture and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to commercially important species. 

The research will focus on Lyme Bay, off the south coast of England, which is home to the UK’s largest offshore rope cultured mussel farm, operated by Offshore Shellfish Ltd.

The farm is located between three and six miles offshore and, once fully operational, is expected to become the largest of its type in European waters, covering a total area of 15.4sq km. It could produce up to 10,000 tonnes per year of native blue mussels. 

Lyme Bay is also home to an MPA, located to the east of the mussel farm, which has been protected from scallop dredging and trawling for 11 years, resulting in the recovery of biogenic reef habitats.

Senior Research Fellow Dr Emma Sheehan and her team at the University have been using underwater surveys to assess the ecological effects of the MPA since 2008, and the offshore mussel farm since the beginning of its development in 2013.

By excluding bottom towed fishing, and introducing food and shelter, the farm has created biogenic reef habitat that attracts fishes, crustaceans, sponges and sea weeds, including several economically important species that could benefit the wider fishing community.

Through the new Response of Predators to Protection and Enhancement (ROPE) project, funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, the team will tag and track multiple commercial species including sea bass, brown crab, lobsters and crawfish. The aim will be to compare the relative habitat value of the mussel farm to the protected reefs in the MPA.

Dr Simon Pittman, ROPE Research Project Manager, said:

“In the UK and worldwide there is increasing interest in the role of the ocean in sustainable food production and how best to manage ocean spaces for multiple uses. The mussel farms in Lyme Bay are located close to an MPA and locally important fishing grounds making it the ideal setting to get a better understanding of the ecological and economic implications.”

The wider research that the University has undertaken in Lyme Bay, including socio-economic studies, was recognised in the UK government’s new 25-year plan for the environment, launched in February 2018. It is now being expanded – in collaboration with the Blue Marine Foundation – to form a national blueprint of how coastal communities can support the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen at the same time as meeting international conservation goals.

The new ROPE project has received strong support from the seafood industry, marine conservation groups and government agencies with responsibility for effective marine planning and licensing. Its findings could also be used to help the UK comply with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and addresses a number of evidence requirements set out by the Marine Management Organisation and Defra.

Dr Sheehan, ROPE Project Lead, added:

“This project presents a unique and exciting opportunity to look at the effects of habitat enhancement resulting from offshore aquaculture development. Very little is known about the ecological consequences of offshore aquaculture, despite calls for a move towards offshore development and a recent emphasis on Blue Growth in the UK. Aquaculture is listed as one of the key development sectors and this study will support the evaluation of offshore aquaculture in sustainable management of the ocean.”

The Response of Predators to Protection and Enhancement (ROPE) project is funded through a grant of £187,545 from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).

The history of the Lyme Bay Project

The University has so far conducted more than a decade of research and observation into how the natural environment recovers from the effects of commercial bottom towed fishing

Find out more about our work at Lyme Bay