An eel and a shark which are both rare and critically endangered have been found recently in Sussex seas.

A new study by a University of Sussex research team has identified 81 different species along the Sussex coastlines, including tope shark, tub gurnard fish and the European eel.

Tope sharks can grow up to 6ft long and can travel long distances.

European eels are, on average, 2.6ft and feed on fish and crustaceans. The number of young eels in Europe is reported to have dropped by about 95% in the last 40 years.

Both of them are rare to see in these waters and are of high conservation concern. 

The study, released on Tuesday, forms part of PhD candidate Alice Clark’s research into the recovery of biodiversity in Sussex Bay.  

Ms Clark said: “Coastal ecosystems suffer from a range of stressors including overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution and climate change, all of which can lead to population decline and a loss of diversity in species.

"Through this analysis, we have been able to discover so many different species in our waters, and I think people will be surprised to learn just how diverse this area of the UK coastline is.” 

The Argus: A ray captured on camera by University of Sussex researchersA ray captured on camera by University of Sussex researchers (Image: University of Sussex)The research has provided a monitoring baseline of marine life diversity. Using both BRUV and eDNA monitoring will allow the team to document changes in the ecosystem, following the banning of one the most destructive fishing practices in the area, with the hope of seeing signs of recovery over time. 

In March 2021, a Nearshore Trawling Byelaw came into effect, prohibiting trawling in over 300 square kilometres of local coastline from Shoreham-by-Sea to Selsey. Over the last three years, the university's research team have been conducting an in-depth study to monitor underwater habitats along the coast and identify the species that live in our seas. 

Prof Mika Peck, Project co-lead and PhD supervisor, says: 

“There is an urgent need to address destructive fishing practices globally. The seminal trawler ban by Sussex IFCA in 2021 being a leading example. Our team at Sussex are providing the critical evidence to understand ecosystem recovery upon removing human pressures, such as trawling, using emerging technologies such as eDNA.” 

BRUV imaging is an increasingly common and effective tool for monitoring underwater and allows researchers to learn more about the traits and behaviours of marine life through video footage. eDNA is a technique used to identify DNA found in the environment and can help to detect rare species. The team found that three times as many species were detected using eDNA sampling compared to video surveys alone. 

By combining BRUV and eDNA methods, the team have gained a more comprehensive understanding of biodiversity in the area, providing guidance for conservation efforts in Sussex, but also informing how future monitoring programmes can be conducted around the globe. And Sussex students have played a pivotal role in helping the researchers gather and analyse samples. 

Dr Valentina Scarponi, project co-lead says: 

“This is a very exciting project, as it will allow us to closely monitor changes in the local marine community.

“We are very proud to be contributing to practical conservation efforts. Students at Sussex studying Ecology, Zoology and Animal Studies play a key role in the project and gain exceptional skills. They help analyse video footage and collect water samples: it’s a really hands-on project which has enabled them to experience real-world conservation as part of their studies.”