The Black Bream Project

Latest update April 23, 2019 Started on April 2, 2015

Documenting the secret breeding lives of black seabream off the UK’s Jurassic Coast for the very first time.

By Matt Doggett, Martin Openshaw, Sheilah Openshaw and Polly Whyte

April 2, 2015
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In The Field

Eggs and Nests.

April is not usually a great month for taking a RIB out in Dorset, it can be cold, it can be windy and it can be raining. Easter 2019 was forecast for fabulous weather, the downside was that Easter always falls at equinoctial spring tides which means the tide goes out a long way for a long time. If you miss recovering the boat by about 13:30 you have to wait until about 19:00.

The weather was perfect for Easter Saturday, Sheilah damaged the ligaments in her knee a couple of months back so is not diving until she has regained the strength to both dive and climb up the ladder onto the boat – Matt is delighted because without her kit there is more room for cameras on the boat!

Easter Saturday the weather was set for sunshine, warmth, and flat calm seas so out we set to put the 7-day camera in to see what was happening on the seabed. Last year we had planned to film the change in the seabed from when the males first started their excavations to the end of the season, but circumstances (including weather) conspired against us.

By 13:00 we had recovered the boat, washed it and were sat eating lunch overlooking the bay, counting the bream angling boats (8 of them). There was no sign of activity on the seabed, the usual place they start had seen some changes from previous years in that there was a lot of loose sand around instead of the broken shale. A new position on a rock slightly south of where we have previously left the camera had been selected and the camera had been deployed we considered it a job well done.

By 15:00 we had washed the kit off and were getting ready to go home and prepare to spend Easter Sunday & Monday tucking into some well-earned Easter Eggs when Martin decided to check the weather. What turned out to be storm Hannah was beginning to show her ugly face, the predictions were for a force 9 to come in Thursday and last for several days – what chance did a poor little camera sat in a vulnerable position on top of an exposed rock have?

The only option was to remain in Dorset overnight and retrieve the camera the next day, this was a disaster – the Easter Eggs were 70 miles away!

At 12:30 we received notification that the burglar alarm had gone off at home so the 70-mile journey had to be made only to find that it was a couple of spiders dancing across the sensor – they won’t do that again!

The camera still had to be retrieved so we decided to risk Easter Monday instead. Back to Kimmeridge at 8:00 am, this time not only did we have to get the boat out so that it wasn’t stuck there all afternoon, but we had to get all the kit washed off in time to beat the bank holiday traffic!

We can do it if we try AND we were rewarded for our efforts. A second camera was deployed in a less vulnerable position, lashed down with sturdy ropes and the camera which had been in 2 days was recovered. That recovery was ‘interesting’ by now the wind was blowing a nice force 5, the boat was either being blown on top of the diver or away from the diver with only 1 person on board to both grab the gear and hold the boat in position.

The big news was that there was evidence that nests were being built. Not just one nest but several, as we had predicted they were out on the shale not where they usually start (which was still covered in sand). We were hopeful that we would have some footage of seabed change over the next week – watch this space……………………………..

A ray of sunshine

Following the test of our ROV, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. We headed over to the black bream site to see what nesting activity might be occurring.

Given how quickly the waters warmed over the past 4-6 weeks, I was a bit surprised to see no signs of nesting activity on the site. The seabed was in its ‘usual’ state compared with last year when the bream did not nest on the site and the gravel was arranged in many steep ridges.

We know from local reports that the bream are around. They are being caught by local anglers and commercial fishermen. It’s possible that although their arrival may be influenced by warming waters, the onset of nesting activity might be influenced to some degree by day length or moon phase or other factors like weather conditions, sea state, chemical cues etc. The strength of the influence of any of these potential factors over the onset of nesting can vary between any given location and year. So the lack of nesting activity this week wasn’t unusual for the time of year, even when compared with previous, colder and / or more average years.

Despite the lack of black bream, my dive was very pleasing as I found a couple of spotted rays (Raja montagui); one female and one male. These are often very skittish and swim away before divers can approach. Perhaps the relatively cool water (10 degC) made them more docile as I was able to film and photograph each one for several minutes. Enjoy the video!

Taking the plunge

A week after its arrival we were ready to test out our new ROV. Common sense would suggest taking it somewhere sheltered, probably shore-based but as we were getting the first dive in on the bream site we decided to bring it along on the boat. Before we dived we had a short window of opportunity to fly the ROV so we headed into the shallow, sheltered waters of Worbarrow Bay.

Operating the ROV was far harder than I imagined - much more tricky than a UAV, an aerial drone. It’s very responsive so will just take some getting used to, I’m sure. We can see that in time its operation will become easier with better communication between ourselves and a better understanding of the ROV’s handling characteristics.

We used the recommended controller that we bought along with the ROV. A couple of times the app crashed and the screen went blank. I’m not sure why this happened. This seemed to result in the controller not recording the 720p footage but the 1080 files were still retained on the ROV.

Screen brightness is an issue, even in overcast conditions, so a towel over the head is a necessity – I’ll bring a bigger one next time. Below I’ve included a short bit of footage with the LED lights turned on.

The quality is very good considering the milky 3m or so of vis. So I have high hopes for clearer days. I also did a very quick test with a bottom-mounted GoPro and LED video light to take some top down images of the seabed.

These early results are promising and could get some good habitat footage when flying transects as well as getting images of eggs on any bream nests we find.

Having the GoPro mounted on the bottom of the ROV caused it to pitch downward but that seemed fairly easy to counteract with the controls. Moving the trim weights backward might help and we’ll try that on subsequent tests.

First impressions? All very positive!

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Good first go with the Trident. I'm also learning how to operate one, and getting there. Would be interested to see/hear any experience you have with operating it in tidal currents, as this is something I'm currently experimenting with.

Goodies in the post

This week started out very well indeed! The project's Trident ROV arrived in the post on Monday and unpacking it was a lot of fun. Thanks again to everyone who has signed up to follow the project and helped support our application.

I made a short timelapse video of me unpacking it so you can see exactly what it's like when they arrive. Perhaps I should have kept filming as I linked everything up but it literally is ready to use straight out the box.

The first thing I unpacked was the dedicated controller. This arrived fully charged and with the software pre-installed. All I had to do was connect to the wi-fi and double check for updates, though none were required.

Next came the 100m tether. All neatly coiled and again, ready to go, although I will be attaching a lanyard and clip to prevent it from potentially being dropped over the side of a boat.

And finally the ROV itself. When it comes to cameras and dive kit I like things to be heavy. It gives a feeling of quality, longevity and robustness. And the trident feels heavier and more rugged than I ever thought it would from looking at images online. Again, it arrived fully charged and immediately ready to deploy.

I chose to buy a waterproof case for the ROV on ebay and the next day set about making all the correct-sized sections to store the 25m tether and charger at the bottom, and the ROV and controller above. I used a piece of the original packaging to place between the 25m tether and the ROV to prevent any direct contact. It seems to work well so far (pictured).

Hopefully sea trials can begin next week and then we'll set about searching for new nesting sites. All the ROV needs now is a name...

Thanks Yumang :-) I suspect they will continue to be shy during their nesting phase... but maybe not given the responses I have seen of other fish. We plan to use the Trident mainly to identify new nest sites so it doesn't really matter if we don't see the fish... but it would be a nice bonus!

A Trident ROV for the Black Bream Project

I’m very excited to be able to say that the Black Bream Project has been awarded a Trident ROV to help us go looking for new nest sites this year! It was such a great surprise to open my email and see that good news in my inbox.

Thank you everyone who has signed up and followed our new project blog. Without that support we would not have qualified for the grant-funded ROV. You have all been a massive help.

And thank you to the S.E.E. Initiative and National Geographic Open Explorer and all the scheme sponsors for seeing the potential in our project and its value in helping to understand and discover more about this amazing fish.

We will continue to add to the blog with stories, anecdotes and findings from previous years and will keep you updated as we progress this year. If luck is on our side we will find new nest sites throughout the Purbecks and beyond...

In The Field

Pea Soup

The odds are against us getting in the water any time soon, with 40-50mph winds forecast throughout the next week. And that's turned the water a lovely shade of brown.

Even if the bream have turned up with the warmer waters, I think it's very unlikely they'll engage in any nesting activity just now. The swell from the wave action would almost certainly flatten any nests as quickly as they were built. So we wait for our window of opportunity...

The image below was from last week before the winds got really strong. And you can see how murky the water is. This is Milford Beach in Hampshire and close to one possible nest site I'd like to check out this year, although the area is highly tidal with many sandbanks so it might be a job for an ROV over slack water.

We were visiting the site for an interview about the project. It'll be included in a section on citizen science in a new BBC series called Blue Planet UK, which airs in a couple of weeks time (more on that later). It was freezing cold doing the interview outside and we had to time it between the squalls coming in off the sea, using the Needles Eye cafe as shelter!

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Congratulations on the Blue Planet UK airing, but most of all for all the project! I've been following it, and I definitely know what it is to want to go into the water but the weather not really allowing it! Keep it up!
Thanks Nuno. It looks like it should start to calm down next week. Then it’ll take several days for the vis to clear. But if I am lucky it will all be perfect for when I arrive home from holiday... the same day as the project will be on TV!

It doesn’t always go to plan!

Storm Freya came over the weekend, so we decided to spend time looking at some of the footage which didn’t make the first cut. I was looking at the footage from a day I well remember, but not for good reasons!

There was a brisk north easterly wind, enough to be cold, but not enough to stop us diving. Martin left his camera on what he thought was the edge of the bream nest and we had to wait for 4 hours till the card was full before we collected it.

It was spring tides so we couldn’t go back into Kimmeridge in case we couldn’t get the boat out and back in time to collect the camera between the low tides (it’s a weird tide along that bit of coast). The ranges were firing so we couldn’t go to Lulworth cove see if the café was open, so we headed up the coast into Chapmans Pool where we hoped to get shelter from the cliffs.

It was a very long, cold 4 hours. We ate lunch, we drank soup, we huddled down in the boat and we froze. Eventually our time was up, and we headed back to the site; the big male bream had deemed the camera to be within his territory so had attacked it within 10 minutes of us leaving the site. We had 4 hours of being able to see weed floating by and, if you are lucky, fish swimming overhead, but no bream nest behaviour!

A lesson learned the hard way!

But still quite an interesting video Sheilah! Look how fat all those females are swimming overhead - laden with eggs and just waiting for Mr Right to tempt them down to his meticulously kept nest to spawn :-)

Warming seas...

We wait with some trepidation to see what the bream will do this year. As a general rule their spring spawning migration follows the advance of the nine degree celsius thermal isotherm (temperature front) up the English Channel each spring. This is usually timed with their arrival in late March.

But today the sea surface temperature in Weymouth Bay has just topped 9.1 degC. And it's still only February. This day last year the temperature was around 6.5 degC.

Black bream is a Lusitanian (southern) species occurring from Norway all the way south to the Namibia in Africa. The UK's south and Welsh coasts are the northern limit of their breeding range, as far as we know. With globally warming seas we could expect this range to increase as the years go by. But with our seasonal temperatures becoming so variable and unpredictable it seems to be becoming harder and harder to predict when or where they will arrive...

The temperature data above are courtesy of the Channel Coast Observatory and compare very well with a temperature logger on the seabed at our nest monitoring site a few miles away.


Equipment preparation

The list of things to get ready for this year’s diving on the Black Bream Project is quite extensive.

For starters, Martin and Sheilah have the boat, Stardis to prepare for the season. She’s a 6m RIB and would have plenty of stories to tell if she could talk! Her trailer needs servicing, her engine checking over and all the navigational and safety equipment must be in working order.

All our dive kit needs servicing. We all dive twinsets, so that adds up to a lot of cylinders and regulators to get serviced, but it’s worth it for the added safety on our dives. And then there are the drysuits and all our other SCUBA kit to check to make sure they will serve us well for the season.

Hats. Lots of different hats. The breeding season starts in late March and ends in late June / early July. Even the sunniest March days can be freezing cold out on the boat so big hats and coats are often a ‘must’. But as things warm up sunburn and heat pose a greater risk, so plenty of shade is needed. And in between? Well, we just bring everything we can fit on the boat… just in case!

And finally, the cameras… so many cameras! Sheilah likes to count how many we have on board each day and every lens gets included. I think our record, between four of us, is twenty-something although that did include our phones! Sometimes I’ll bring my drone but the conditions really do need to be good to fly it from a small boat in the sea.

We often head out armed with four to five GoPros. Some of these will be left to film nests for just a few hours until their batteries run down, whilst Martin’s longer-life rigs might stay down for a full week, recording at set intervals throughout each day. This allows us to get a glimpse of life on site when we can’t be there.

If conditions are good, I’ll often leave one or two dSLRs filming or doing time-lapse photography for a few hours too. This has provided us with some great quality images for outreach and education as part of the project. This season I am looking at the possibility of a wifi up-link to a dSLR to increase my success rate with the remote imaging.

All these cameras have housings which need servicing and checking prior to being taken underwater. So the next few weeks will see a flurry of activity as we go about this task. Once our cameras, dive kit and the boat are all ready to go we’ll be in the water and hoping for great conditions to be able to see what the bream do this year.

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Black bream in West Sussex

In a surprise spin-off from the Black Bream Project last summer we were asked to visit Kingmere Marine Conservation Zone to film and photograph its amazing marine life, including the black bream, which are one of the site's main features of interest. We organised a team of photographers to join us over three dives in a effort to show the wildlife and habitats of the MCZ at their best.

We only had two dives to try and film the bream. While we saw many nests with eggs we didn't unfortunately, capture any on camera (it was a big 'ask' in just two dives!). The final visit was after the spawning season in late summer but it gave us the chance to see different species from those earlier in the year.

On the whole, the Kingmere project was a success as we were able to supplement what we did capture of the Kingmere nests with some of our footage for Dorset. The final output from these dives as well as additional work by staff from the Marine Conservation Society is the project webpage This was launched yesterday in Worthing and it is hoped will act as a useful educational resource for anyone wanting to know what lives inside the MCZ and how the area is managed.

An exhibition, 'Super-dads of the Sea' is open to the public at Colonnade House in Worthing for the next two weeks.

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Plans for 2019

There is still more to discover about black bream and divers can cover only limited areas on any one dive. We still need to know where else the bream nest and how big each nesting site is. Black bream can nest as deep as 50-60m, well beyond our recreational diving limits but we don't yet know if there are any such sites in Dorset.

This year, in 2019, we want to find new nest sites and increase our understanding of how the species uses Dorset’s seas - and if we are really lucky, capture the act of spawning. Using a Trident ROV will allow us to rapidly expand our knowledge of where nests occur beyond the areas we already know about - it will greatly expand the amount of ground and new sites we can cover in any one day, and the range of depths we can explore. It's only about six weeks until the breeding season starts in late March so we're gearing up to get in the water as soon as conditions allow.

What's more is that when the bream have left our main monitoring site, the area becomes populated very rapidly by a large number of undulate rays - a species which has been classified as Near Threatened due to overfishing. We have been able to identify individual rays by their spot patterns and know that a significant proportion of the 200+ individuals known to us from the site return year-on-year. We are trying to understand how and why they use the site, so once the bream have gone a Trident ROV will still have a lot of discovering to do for the rest of the summer.

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Hi Matt, really interesting project!. Looking forward to hearing more from your expeditions.

Thanks Gonzalo. We're in the process of adding lots of back-dated information, images and video to tell the project's story so far. Then we're looking forward to adding much more this year... hopefully with footage from a Trident as we explore for new nesting sites!


Published again!

We were pleased this month to have the Black Bream Project featured in July's issue of SCUBA magazine.

The feature tells the story of black bream, a fish many UK divers will never have heard of, let alone have seen. We also promoted the value of 'project diving' within clubs. Our project has shown how divers from different backgrounds can bring together their different skills and knowledge to reveal the secrets of our seas to educate others and provide meaningful input to conservation and management of our oceans.

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In The Field

Unpredictable wildlife

It’s been a worrying week, knowing your camera is on the seabed (see previous post for 18 May 2018) and not knowing whether it’s OK and still working. But we’re back, 7 days later, and just before diving, I’m now apprehensive about finding out whether it’s still all in one piece! We know exactly where we leave the cameras, it really helps if you want them back, and this one had been left by a prime bream nesting site.

On the dive we found the camera still in place and working but the site still looked just the same as it had the previous week, with very little sign of bream activity; that hadn’t been the plan, the bream should have started building nests.

The bream had nested here every year for the last 5-years but with the camera in place, not this year. The camera system had worked fine, we had a 5-minute video snapshot of the site, every hour for 7 days. We know the bream were in the area because they swam past in their hundreds, but they didn’t stop this year. We will need to be sharper next year, picking the camera spot and getting the timing just right.

As one friend said later, “you should have known they’d do that, it’s a wildlife thing.”


Technical stuff – longer range autonomous camera

The autonomous camera system had been a big success in 2017, providing extended video time underwater but the computer consumed significant power even when nothing was happening limiting the battery life to between 24 and 48 hours. I wanted to extend the deployment time to 7 days. Even though the video would still be limited by memory capacity to just short of 7 hours we would be able to monitor activity across several days, gain a better understanding of the nest construction and nest ownership.

The Arduino Uno was replaced with an Arduino Mini, that can be put in a power efficient sleep mode and I added a real time clock to simplify timing issues. Not having an electronics background, getting everything to start and stop without wasting valuable battery capacity was a major challenge. I found the only way to be sure everything would work for 7-days was to test it for 7-days therefore it took most of the winter to get it right, and it still hadn’t been tested underwater.

Typical unpredictable UK weather had prevented diving the site during April and after some short-term initial trials the new camera was deployed mid-May. We’ve done this so many times, but it still feels wrong going home with your camera still on the seabed, and its much worse when you know that you’re not coming back for several days.

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In The Field

Life on the Ocean Wave

We have been diving this site since 2012 when we discovered that undulate rays call it home. The following year we dived it in May, looking for rays and couldn’t recognise the site because the bream were nesting and had changed the landscape to something we didn’t recognise.

We learned about the ’lunar landscape’ which the bream create across the site [and beyond] and we thought that we had seen all the usual the changes to the seabed, but never in all that time have I seen ‘waves’ of shale before. Straight lines of loose stones etc with bedrock between them, almost like a ploughed field. Presumably it is the actions of wind and tide over the winter, perhaps we just get to the site after the bream have evened the shale distribution out.

Matt’s photograph of the shale waves is much better than mine which is why I’ve borrowed it to post below.


Black bream in print

As well as our SCUBA article this season, we also had a piece published in Salt Water Boat Angling magazine.

We used the opportunity to reach out to the angling community, show them the amazing breeding behaviour of the black bream and explain the importance of returning males to the water during the spawning season. By putting male fish back in the water, they have a chance to return to their nests to continue to guard their eggs and ensure the next generation has the best possible start to life.

We've had a very positive response from anglers to the work we have done so far with some calling for similar projects on other species.

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Appetite for Analysis

The success of the autonomous cameras has provided us with hours and hours of video showing the natural behaviour of bream on their nest site. Extracts from the videos provide a great insight into the lives of these industrious little fish as they produce their next generation. But we also want to quantify their efforts for a more scientific analysis of their behaviour for future technical publications. That means analysing their activities, recording the number of time certain events occur and timing periods of other activities at different points in the spawning cycle.

The drawback of lots of long videos, is lots of time needed to watch and analyse the content, even on long winter evenings it can get tedious. I did find I had a willing helper – known as Kat for simplicity, she studied the bream diligently, catching every movement and every flick of their tail. I think her idea of a technical publication may look more like a menu, but fortunately she won’t be writing the paper.

In The Field

Black bream on TV

We were really pleased this month to have the project featured on the new BBC2 series, Hugh's Wild West. Keo Films came down to interview us on the boat and we provided footage of our research on Dorset's bream. It was a fabulous opportunity to have the black bream's amazing story reach an even wider audience.

The series aired in January 2018 and the images below show some of the screen shots - Martin and Sheilah preparing their modified GoPro for deployment and me and Martin being interviewed. The images of bream show a male bream keeping his nest tidy by swishing gravel with his tail and a male and female getting to know one another on a nest.

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Harey moment

Diving on the site today we were a little surprised to find no signs of any new bream activity. Leaving cameras down only to have to pick them up later would probably have been a rather futile exercise.

Even without bream, there is plenty to see on our study site. So after a thorough recce to check for bream nests I decided to go and look for something else to film. The seahares (a kind of sea snail, but with an internal shell) were full of the joys of spring and out in force. I got so close to this one it latched on to my lens port!

Collaborating with Exeter University

In April we helped a team from Exeter University use our field study methods to monitor the responses of nest-guarding males to underwater noise.

We went to a well-known nest site in Swanage Bay in shallow water with limited currents which made setting up the experiment relatively easy.

Once the fish had settled back onto their nests they were played a variety of noises at different volumes and the researchers observed how the fish responded. This was designed to mimic man-made disturbance that might occur near some nest sites elsewhere, such as underwater piling noise.

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And he believed me………………

I have a stinking cold!

Yesterday I thought the cold was coming & decided that a plunge into the English Channel would not be the best thing for me. Martin took my camera housing to 15m to check that there were no leaks – the year I don’t do that will be the year I have a flood!

Whilst waiting for the boys to come back I started adding up the number of cameras on a 5.8meter rib. If you include Matt’s Drone and the phones there were 13 cameras on the boat.

As we were packing up I made the remark that I couldn’t dive because there wasn’t enough room on the boat for me to take my kit because of all the cameras. Martin has known me too long, but Matt was devastated, the really thought that he had deprived me of a day’s diving because of all his cameras.

Matt is a nice guy, I put him out of his misery by admitting I was winding him up, but not sure he will believe what I say in future!


Black Bream and Porcupines

This week we took the Black Bream Project back to Plymouth to the Annual Meeting of the Porcupine Marine Natural History Society (PMNHS). You’d be forgiven for not knowing the link between large, land-dwelling, prickly rodents and sex-changing, nesting building, marine fish – the answer is, ‘there isn’t one’.

The PMNHS is an informal society of both amateur and professional marine biologists with an interest in marine wildlife from the Northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean. HMS Porcupine was the name of the Royal Navy vessel engaged on scientific expeditions in the N.E. Atlantic and Mediterranean in 1869 and 1870. HMS Porcupine made the first ever deep ocean dredge for living creatures in 1869 and the Porcupine Bank off the west coast of Ireland is named after her. But I digress…

The annual meeting of PMNHS provides an interesting and eclectic mix of talks on all aspects of marine life, from the tiniest worms to the largest whales. There’s something of interest for everyone. We presented the stories of the Black Bream Project and the Undulate Ray Project, both of which use the same study site in Dorset. We presented the work alongside Paul Naylor who described how he uses unique facial patterns in tompot blennies to monitor their territorial and mating behaviour in a manner very similar to how Martin and Sheilah identify the undulate rays using their individual patterns of spots and stripes.

All three talks illustrated how important observational science is. Just watching animals go about their lives can result in massive improvements of our understanding of species ecology and help to tell captivating, educational stories about the sea. I often think it’s a pity that funding for such studies is so hard to come by these days when they can reveal so much more than standardised biological sampling studies. But I count myself lucky to be in a position to do this kind of work on my own doorstep.


Right Royal praise

Back in 2015 we were very grateful to be awarded a small grant toward the project from the British Sub-Aqua Jubilee Trust to cover boat time and travel costs. After submitting a report on the project we were delighted to be put forward for and win the Duke of Edinburgh Prize for the best British Sub-Aqua Club dive project that year.

We received the award at Buckingham Palace in November 2016. We were very pleased to meet HRH Prince Phillip before heading on to a champagne reception with other BSAC clubs and the BSAC and BSA-JT committee members. The award was the icing on the cake for the project's first phase and motivated us on to the next stages of bream monitoring.

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In The Field

Other Species

Polly's Prawn

About 10 years ago Polly made the first sighting of Periclimenes sagittifer in British waters, naturally Matt photographed it.

Many people went to Swanage Pier to find this prawn, but it wasn’t until the following August that another was spotted, this time in Studland Bay, by Martin, and naturally, Sheilah photographed it.

Comparing notes on the two sightings during a Seasearch diving trip is how Polly & Matt and Martin & Sheilah first met.

Finding Polly’s Prawn on the bream site today was an added bonus.


Collaborating with Southern IFCA

Having seen our work from 2015, the Southern Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authority also got involved this year and came along to complete a sidescan sonar survey of our site to determine the extent of the nests. This is a costly and time-consuming survey method but showed us at our site the nests extended for over 500m.

The dense craters in the seabed gravels show up very clearly on the results. The final images provide a great means of demonstrating the scale of the changes the bream bring to the seabed each spring.

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Big scary divers

The autonomous camera produced an unexpected bonus today. We’d left the camera yesterday to record activity at dusk and then come on again at dawn. The camera was still recording when we arrived back on site this morning and shows us exactly what happens when a diver approaches a bream nest.

The video shows a series of clips taken over 20-30 minutes. The camera has been there almost 24 hours and any initial curiosity of the bream has gone, he’s completely ignoring it. His initial behaviour is entirely normal, keeping the nest clean, chasing other males away and trying to attract females. As soon as a diver enters the water the bream begins to get nervous, he rises higher in the water column away from the nest.

Note how his colour changes, losing the black with white stripe and becoming just any other silver fish as he merges into the background. Well before the diver is within visibility range, he’s off out of sight. He’s probably not very far away but will not return until the diver leaves the area.

You often see the males really stretch out their dorsal and anal fins too when other males or potential egg predators come too close. It makes them look as big and scary as possible - presumably to try to avoid a more energetically costly fight.

Fish vs. camera - the battle continues!

Leaving dSLR systems underwater has been a bit more nerve-wracking than deploying the GoPros. We experimented with different tripods and positions and have been rewarded with a range of different high-quality and eye-catching images to help educate people about this amazing species.

The perfect image still eludes us. The problem being that all these images are taken using time-lapse photography so a little bit of pot-luck is involved. Then, whenever a school of females comes near the nest, the males' tendency is to swim up toward them and away from the camera. So capturing the perfect portrait with an interesting background full of fish in a single image is still a goal. For now, composite images taken just a few minutes apart have to suffice.

And as if that weren't enough, the males approve of these larger cameras even less. Despite their weight and use of big rocks to hold them in place, some male bream still succeed in moving them backwards a few inches and ruining a carefully considered composition!

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Territorial battles

A male black bream excavates his nest by digging down into the gravel to reach bedrock or boulders beneath. He does this by swishing his tail and shoving or picking up gravel with his mouth. All the shifted gravel forms a ridge, or a rampart around the nest perimeter and marks the edge of his territory.

Once the nest is built the male might need to defend it against larger males trying to muscle-in on prime territory. As seen in this video, the fights can be quite vicious with fish biting chunks from one another’s fins.


Modifying a GoPro

Capturing natural behaviour of bream that are aggressive to cameras and disappear at the first sign of diver is a challenge. The initial results relied on a combination of luck and perseverance.

To maximise the advantage of a remote camera and to increase the chance of recording critical behaviour we wanted to make most use of the available memory capacity and extend battery life.

Modifying a standard camera housing, connecting it to a larger battery and controlling the camera from a single board computer (Arduino) provides an autonomous camera that can be left for prolonged periods, extending the monitoring period during each expedition day. Leaving the modified camera overnight will give us knowledge of bream activity on a nest from dawn until dusk and significantly increase the amount of video coverage we are able to obtain.


Telling the story

In 2016 we achieved more with the project than we thought possible. We continued our behaviour monitoring with remote cameras placed by individual nests and stepped up our efforts to get better images by even leaving SLR systems by some nests to capture high-quality images.

While preparing for the season we also launched the Black Bream Project webpage to tell the story of our work to date. This was really well-received by scientists and anglers alike and has generated much discussion and helped influence fishery management.


Let's talk about bream

By the end of our first season monitoring black bream we already had enough material to tell a captivating story of life and love on the seabed each spring. We took our initial findings to the annual conference of the Institute for Fisheries Management in Plymouth; a meeting of scientists, fishery managers and policy makers from around the country and further afield.

The response was great with lots of interest in what we have found out and the compelling, visual demonstration of the male bream's pivotal parental role. Our intensive monitoring has also provided the most comprehensive data gathered on the duration and pattern of spawning and nesting during spring and summer.

On the back of the positive comments, more talks were quickly planned to local interest groups and the general public.

In The Field

Dedicated dads

After a successful first season filming the nesting bream, one of our favourite videos came in early July at the end of the nesting season.

When we place cameras on nests the males disappear from view while we are in the water. After we have gone back to the boat it often takes a few minutes for the male to return. In the video below, in the male's absence a large ballan wrasse has appeared and started to eat the eggs. It doesn't take long for the male black bream to return and see it off. He even removes the snail that has entered the scene also to feed on the unguarded eggs.

Video footage like this has been instrumental in helping to encourage anglers to return male fish during the spawning season. Anglers can now see the direct implications for the next generation of fish if male bream are taken for the table.

A steep learning curve

Our early efforts in 2015 saw us undergo a steep learning curve. Although black bream are shy fish and will swim away when divers are nearby, they are very territorial and intolerant of any foreign objects too close to the nest. In these early days it wasn't uncommon to return to our remote cameras and find them face-down on the seabed, some distance from the nest... hours and hours of recording time and diving effort lost.

We soon learned the best methods and locations for camera placement to cause minimal or no disturbance to the males' natural behaviour while they guarded their nests. But we made the video below to illustrate just what lengths they will go to if they do not like a camera too close. This GoPro was mounted on a 2kg lead weight, buried under stones!


Mass Migration

We were thrilled when Martin returned with this video of a huge shoal of bream arriving on the nesting site near Kimmeridge. To see such a vast number of fish in our local waters was incredible and brings home the scale of the annual spawning migration that occurs across Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex.

Meet the team


Scooby was our springer spaniel until earlier this year (2019) when we sadly had to say goodbye. He joined us on many of our diving adventures, including this project so deserves a special mention.

Well-loved by many of our diving friends, Scooby was an excellent boat buddy and dive marshal. He would always bark loudly whenever the boat went downwind of Polly’s bubbles and he could smell her breath. Always first to the beach, Scooby would report back on water temperature and the shoreline-based birdlife before we were kitted up!

He joined us on several marine life identification courses too. How much he took in is anyone’s guess but he was well-educated on non-native species, hydroids and bryozoans, and he knew more than the average spaniel about survey techniques and the SACFOR scale. He’ll be sorely missed but we have many happy memories of him with us on this project and others.

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Meet the team

Sheilah Openshaw

Sheilah started diving with the British Sub-Aqua Club 25 or so years ago. From simple club diving she has channelled her diving into project diving.

Membership of the Nautical Archaeological society brought opportunities to exploit her historical interests and she now co-ordinates their Members’ Research Group. She enjoys the research as much as the diving having published an article about how she (along with Martin) identified the Netley Abbey, a shipwreck off the Dorset coast which was consistently misidentified. She is currently writing up another identification article.

Seasearch participation and training led to a greater understanding of life beneath the sea, but more importantly understanding just how much we do not know about undersea life.

Expecting to see a fairly flat seabed early one year and finding a moonscape instead led to the springtime project which now governs her life from April to June. The breeding rituals of the Black Bream still have some secrets and she is determined to unearth them.

Sheilah is a key member of The Undulate Ray Project which has progressed from finding a hot-spot for these endangered creatures to individually identifying them from the pattern on their backs and helping with a university of Manchester project to sample DNA from undulates throughout their population range.

One project seems to lead onto another so watch this space.


Meet the team

Martin Openshaw

Martin Openshaw is a Chartered Mechanical Engineer and long-time amateur diver. He studied engineering at Cranfield University in the UK and completed a career in the chemical and petroleum industry. He has no professional association with the marine or biological world, his knowledge in the field being gained from recreational diving activities.

He learned to dive with BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club) and remains a member of the local club. As a keen scuba diver, he was drawn by the vast amount we don’t know about our local seas, and that fostered his interest in marine biology and archaeology. Participating in numerous projects as an amateur diver, he is member of the Nautical Archaeology Society and Seasearch, a project for volunteer scuba divers to record the underwater marine environment. Investigation, survey and recording skills have been developed via a series of underwater archaeology projects and Seasearch provided the education into the marine life of the local area.

Recently retired from full time professional engineering, Martin is combining his skills and devoting more time toward marine projects. He began recording bream activity having stumbled across a large area of bream nests and initially considered it would be a good early season project that would not be too time-consuming! How wrong he was, fortunately he was already determined to give up the day job.


Meet the team

Polly Whyte

Polly is an environmental educator in Hampshire, UK. She studied zoology at Bristol University before completing an MSc in Conservation at Glamorgan University in Wales.

Polly has worked on numerous projects from delivering Open Access initiatives to the local countryside, river restoration projects and marine education work in both the Philippines and Hampshire in the UK. Presently Polly both runs and enables people to participate in outdoor and environmental education courses in Hampshire and operates her own Forest School sessions for toddlers.

An avid diver and lover of the outdoors, Polly joins Matt on many adventures diving around the UK and has been a key member of the Black Bream Project and the Undulate Ray Project. Polly’s underwater claim to fame was recording the first sighting of the beautiful snakelocks anemone shrimp beneath Swanage Pier in Dorset. This warm water species has since spread all along the south coast and might just be another reminder of our warming seas.


Meet the team

Those of us behind the Black Bream Project started it out of nothing more than sheer curiosity. We just wanted to see what these elusive fish got up to on the seabed when we weren’t there… it soon became something of an addiction. We are all from different backgrounds (and generations!) but each of us brings something different to the project to help drive it forward. So here we are…

Let’s start with Matt, one of the project instigators and fan of all things fishy.

Matt Doggett

Matt is a marine ecologist in Hampshire, UK. He studied biology at the University of Wales, Cardiff and then for a PhD in marine biology at the University of Wales, Bangor.

After university Matt worked on a coral reef conservation project in Southern Leyte in the Philippines with his partner Polly. Returning to the UK saw Matt marrying Polly and working for an marine consultancy team conducting surveys in a range of environments. In his own time Matt loves to be underwater, filming and photographing his local wildlife and taking part in voluntary marine surveys around the country.

Matt’s underwater photography has seen him win several national and international awards and he hopes this can help raise people’s awareness of the beauty and fragility of our seas. But most importantly Matt believes that it is through people taking ‘ownership’ of their local environments, coming to love and understand them that effective change and protection can happen. We need to reconnect people with nature, get them outdoors and witness the amazing spectacles happening all around us each day.

Expedition Background

Our interest in Black Bream was sparked following some chance encounters with these shy and enigmatic fish in 2013 and 2014. Each spring as the water warms, the bream migrate to our shores in their thousands and transform the seabed into a moonscape of craters, some over two metres wide as they construct their nests. Yet the fish are rarely seen and their breeding behaviours were something of a mystery.

After a trial in Poole Bay in 2013 where we captured footage of a wild male bream on the nest (see video below) an idea was born and we began to plan our project. As luck would have it the 2014 spawning season was ruined by storms so we had to wait another year.

In 2015 we began placing cameras on the seabed to monitor black bream spawning behaviour off the Dorset coast at an extensive nesting site which few people know about. Over the next three years we were able to demonstrate the incredible migration, nest-building and parental care behaviours required to ensure the next generation succeeds.

Black bream are shy fish which keep away from divers, so everything has to be done with remote cameras. They are also very territorial and particular about keeping their nests tidy, so our cameras are often attacked and moved. Add the spring plankton bloom in the middle of the spawning season which can reduce underwater visibility to almost nothing and you begin to wonder why we should take on such a challenging project. Hopefully all our posts will show you how worthwhile the whole exercise has been.

Black bream are targeted by commercial and recreational fishermen during their nesting season when they are at their most vulnerable. Our work has contributed toward the evidence required to establish new Marine Protected Areas along the coast and help develop appropriate fishery management measures. We run our project with no agenda other than to learn. We are simply curious divers wanting to know more about this species. But the fact that our findings have proved so useful to anglers, scientists, fishery managers and policy makers is great news and compels us to carry on.

There is still a lot more to discover about black bream and divers can cover only limited areas on any one dive. We still need to know where else the bream nest and how big each nesting site is. This year we want to find new nest sites and increase our understanding of how the species uses Dorset’s seas - and if we are really lucky we might capture the act of spawning itself. Using a Trident ROV will allow us to rapidly expand our knowledge of where else nests might occur, and who know what else we'll find along the way!


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