Natural England is obliged to monitor and report on species and habitats in designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Such monitoring is challenging because seabed habitats are diverse, long-term data are lacking, and methods are insufficient to describe habitat condition. Records collected by citizen scientists may support this monitoring. This report explores whether novel approaches using citizen science records can support formal condition assessment. Specifically, it uses data on benthic species and habitats in seven English MPAs collected since 2009 by the Seasearch programme. The focus is on diversity and composition of benthic assemblages on infralittoral or circalittoral reefs. Availability of data for seagrass habitat is also assessed.
In Plymouth Sound and Estuaries SAC, Seasearch data from the last six years were compared with data from Natural England. As a consequence of greater survey effort, Seasearch provided more data, found more taxa and identified differing assemblages in each habitat than did condition monitoring.
Change in benthic assemblages between 2009-13 and 2014-19 was assessed for each MPA. Most showed little change in diversity, but there were differences in composition. The main exception was the Berwickshire and North Northumberland Coast SAC, where the mean number of taxa recorded from each habitat increased. A scoring system was developed to allow confidence ratings to be allocated to comparisons of diversity indices between the two periods of time.
The differing methods employed by Seasearch and Natural England provide different information on diversity. Combining methods and analyses may give the most complete and informative picture. Where conservation agencies are legally obliged to survey features of conservation interest, but where data are challenging to collect, records collected by trained Seasearch volunteers may go some way to filling gaps.