Life in Liverpool docks

Review of ‘What’s up Dock?’, a talk presented by Wendy Northway (MCS North West England Seasearch Coordinator) on 14th March 2018.

While Liverpool’s pre-eminence as a maritime centre in the North West is undisputed today, it was only in 1751, with the construction of the world’s first commercial wet dock that she cemented her call to that title. Previously the most important port in the area was Chester, a position the city had held since Roman times.

The first wet docks allowed ships to be unloaded in a day and a half, significantly undercutting the older practice of unloading cargo to smaller boats at sea for transfer to shore – a process that could take two weeks on good weather. This gave the port a massive commercial advantage, and soon the docks were over-subscribed, leading to the rapid construction of new, larger facilities, which were also required as the expansion of trade with the industrial revolution lead to ever larger vessels…

Liverpool's Albert Dock with the Liver Building in the background. Photo B Kaye
Above: Liverpool’s Albert Dock (with the Liver Building in the background) has been cleaned up and is now a major tourist destination, housing Tate Liverpool and a number of museums. Diving in the docks is now strictly controlled. Photo B. Kaye

As each new dock was built, unseen and rather unheralded, we also built a new marine habitat, and it is these that were the subject of the talk What’s up Dock? by Wendy Northway (MCS North West England Seasearch Coordinator) to the group on 14th March 2018. The docks are no longer used commercially (having closed in 1972), but are actively managed leisure spaces. Water from the river Mersey is not used, as it is too polluted, instead the docks are topped up from the Irish sea on high water springs, giving a salinity in the range 24‰ to 28‰. The exchange of water with the Irish Sea allows for migration of marine wildlife between the Irish Sea and the docks, which have as a consequence become colonised by a fairly select group of organisms.

Mussels and algae colonising a discarded bicycle. Photo (c) BrokenDiver
Above: An old bicycle thrown into the dock has been colonised by mussels and algae. Photo © BrokenDiver.

In 1988 the docks were colonised by up to 1000 mussel spat per square meter. The absence of common starfish in the docks have allowed very large population densities of mussels to be established, and larger individuals have grown too big to have any natural predators. The mussels have been calculated to filter the entire of the docks water every four days, and are probably vital to maintaining water quality. Other filter feeders include bryozoans, sponges and tunicates, while cockles have colonised the soft, muddy bottom of the docks.

Black goby amidst mussels, bryozoans and sea squirts in Liverpool docks. Photo (c) Catherine Gras
Black goby amidst mussels, colonial hydroids and sea squirts (Ciona and Ascidiella) in Liverpool docks. © Catherine Gras

The modern docks are home to a thriving marine community, including a number of fish and crustaceans. I was, however, particularly interested to hear that the seasearch divers had confirmed the presence of an introduction from the southern hemisphere, the worm Ficopomatus enigmaticus in the Collingwood Dock. This species may have been introduced on the bottoms of ships or as larvae in bilge water. Unfortunately we do not know if this is a relatively modern introduction on pleasure craft, or a relict from the Liverpool port’s trading days.

Ficopomatus enigmaticus, an Austrolian introduction. Photo Wendy Northway (c) PhoebeSparke
Above: The characteristic pagoda shape of the tubes created by the worm Ficopomatus enigmaticus, an Australian introduction. Photo Wendy Northway © PhoebeSparke

NOTES: Ficopomatus has become a nuicance in many areas it has colonised, producing dense aggregations that can interfere with dock gates and other marine/estuarine structures, though at high densities in docks may help clear the water of particulates, and improve bottom biodiversity (JNCC report linked below). In some places it forms large reef structures in shallow brackish water. Needing a temperature above 18°C to breed, it may not be as invasive in our local open waters, but has been recorded in the docks at Barrow, so we should be looking out for it in the Bay! More information on Ficopomatus enigmaticus at ‘The Exotics Guide‘ and JNCC.

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