Interview with Steve Hartley

Steve Hartley has been involved in surveying the resident population of around 250 bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay for many years from his boat – the Sulaire – based in New Quay, from where he also runs Dolphin Survey Boat Trips, taking paying passengers out to see the local wildlife. He also helps to manage the CBMWC. Steve was also involved in setting up the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC) designated to help protect the bays dolphins. On a recent trip to the area, I took the opportunity to find out more about his research and the wildlife of Cardigan Bay. The following interview is the result:

So Steve, how long have you been involved with the cetaceans of Cardigan Bay and what got you interested?

I first got into cetaceans when I was a commercial fisherman based here more than 20 years ago. I then got involved taking various scientists out on surveys covering Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea in the 1980s. In the early 1990s I started an angling operation and soon discovered that I was far more interested in seeing whales and dolphins than I was in taking people out to get themselves photographed with a fish they’d just killed. After that a friend suggested that I start doing wildlife-watching trips for the paying public who now fund our research. Around this time I also set up the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre.

What research have you been involved in?

Over the years I’ve been involved as boatman for a number of surveys in Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea. In the 1980’s I took scientists out to carry out hydrophone and photo-ID surveys. Currently, the main focus of our research is the photo-ID of bottlenose dolphins within the SAC. In 2005 we produced the first Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre Bottlenose Dolphin Photo-Identification Catalogue. In this we identified over 130 individual dolphins. The catalogue is updated annually and can be downloaded from the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre’s website. This is currently the only Welsh bottlenose dolphin photo-ID catalogue that is available to download.

What wildlife, other than the bottlenose dolphins, do you see in the area?

Cardigan Bay is fantastic for wildlife. We also get harbour porpoises locally and Atlantic grey seals (which also breed in the area). The birdlife is excellent with lots of Manx shearwaters, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, gulls, cormorants, shags, gannets, peregrines and choughs. The Irish Sea is also good for minke whales, common and Risso’s dolphins, basking sharks, sunfish and the occasional leatherback turtle.

What have you learned about the habits and distribution of bottlenose dolphins in the Bay?

One of the main things that we’ve learnt are that there are particularly important feeding areas for the dolphins in the Bay, especially around headlands. We also think that the dolphins may come here to calve in the relative shelter that the Bay provides. However, we really need to carry out more surveys further north in the Bay to see how important northern areas are for the dolphins.

What are the main threats to cetaceans and other wildlife in the area?

The main threat to cetaceans anywhere is a shortage of food due to overfishing. In the Bay, this is not so much of a problem as the local fishing industry is small scale and has very little impact. I am concerned, however, about the catch of migratory fish outside the Bay, which would normally come into the area. Inappropriate boat behaviour around the dolphins is also a problem. All of the commercial dolphin watching operators in the area act according to a voluntary code of conduct, but private vessels can still cause problems, especially by scaring animals away from sensitive feeding areas. As with everywhere else, industrial pollution may also be a problem with toxic materials bio-accumulating up the food chain into top predators like the dolphins.

What are your hopes for the Bay and the dolphins for the future?

I really hope that the Bay will continue to support a basis so that everyone can enjoy it. As such, non-sensitive areas should not have any access restrictions. The conservation of the Bay should also be left to the locals and not to outside organisations dictating from a distance. Community ownership is the key to common-sense conservation. I would also like to see greater education of boat users in the area to act sensitively around the dolphins and other wildlife.