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Life on the Estuary

By Mick Sharp

Ahead of the opening of our ‘Wild Estuary’ exhibition, we spoke to local Angler and Chairman of the Shoebury Waterman’s Association Mick Sharp about his relationship with the Thames Estuary and why he feels it is so important. Mick began fishing from Southend pier in 1969 catching mackerel, mullet and flounders and now has over 50 years sea angling experience.

Mick learned basic skills from other fishermen including his uncle Ron Sharp who was a commercial fisherman. He later took up competitive angling and now promotes the role of sea anglers as vital champions of conservation and citizen science. Mick has worked with Government agencies and Marine Scientists including the Marine Management Organisation, CEFAS, the EU Fisheries Commission and the Southend Council Foreshore Team to monitor the changes in the Estuary.

Over the last 50 years Mick has seen habitat, climate and species change in the Thames Estuary. In terms of habitat change, Mick notes eel grass now extends further east, there has been a reduction in Blue Mussel beds and a general loss of soft mud. This coincides with climate change and the North Sea has seen a temperature rise of 1.5C over the last ten years. It is notable that migratory winter species are staying in the Thames Estuary for shorter periods and summer visitors are now present for a longer period of time.

Sadly this has also led to a decline in species. Cod numbers have been decimated by climate change and over fishing and plaice and haddock are now no longer to be found in the estuary. Sea bass are also under pressure from badly timed targeting that interrupts breeding and doesn’t allow for stocks to rejuvenate sufficiently. It isn’t just the fish that are suffering, bait species like the Harbour Ragworm are under threat due to the lack of soft mud in the Thames.

Though the last fifty years have been disastrous for some species, other species have made a recovery under the changed conditions. Several members of the shark and ray family have made strong recoveries. Smoothound and Tope numbers are on the rise and Thornback Rays can now be found all year round in certain areas of the Thames.

Climate change has also brought new visitors to the Thames Estuary. Mick Sharp recently caught these anchovies in the river and has noted a number of other unusual modern visitors and alien species. Two species of sea horses are now being regularly found in the Thames, a sign that the river water is a lot cleaner that it once was. Other species now being found in the Thames Estuary include Ballan Wrasse, Turbot, Sand and Swimmer Crabs and Pacific Oysters.

Over the last 50 years, Mick recalls seeing significant changes to the estuary. In terms of wildlife there have been winners and losers. The river always responds to human intervention, though unfortunately this is not always in a positive way. It is therefore vital for us to keep an eye on the river. Citizen science can fill the gaps and influence fisheries and recreational sea anglers have the potential to make a significant contribution.

‘We have the greatest river in the world on our doorstep which now supports 101 species of marine fish. We can all play our part in looking after it’.

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