Restoring Sussex’s Magical Underwater Forests: Help Our Kelp’s One Year Anniversary

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By Sarah Fischel, 30th November 2020

A vast forest once stretched 40km along the Sussex coastline, from Selsey to Brighton. This forest, now almost completely vanished, was unlike any other we see in Sussex today. This is because it grew underwater, made up of a group of seaweeds called kelp. 

A local project called ‘Help Our Kelp’ aims to restore these magical underwater kelp forests to their former glory. This kelp restoration partnership, made up of organisations including Sussex Wildlife Trust, Big Wave Productions, Blue Marine Foundation, Marine Conservation Society, and the University of Portsmouth, recently had its one year anniversary. But what is kelp and why is it so important?

Kelp (Image copyright Big Wave Productions, Sussex Wildlife Trust)

What is Kelp?

Kelp is a group of large seaweed species that grow along coastlines, eventually creating forests. These kelp forests are some of the most biodiverse places on Earth, providing habitats, nesting grounds, and feeding grounds for many species of fish, as well as seahorses, lobsters, and even seals, dolphins, and small sharks. Kelp forests purify the water, reduce oceanic acidification and absorb excess nutrients, creating a healthier overall ocean ecosystem.

Kelp Forest (Image Copyright Dan Smale, Marine Biological Association)

Sadly, these habitats have been destroyed at a staggering rate and scale, in Sussex and around the world, mostly through human activity such as fishing, dredging and coastal development.

Sarah Ward, Living Seas Officer for Sussex Wildlife Trust, says: ‘something we find exciting is this idea that when the kelp forest was in Sussex originally, if you were to take a boat out from the shore, you couldn’t use mechanised propellers, you had to manually row through, as the kelp would get caught in the propellers, which is very telling as to how dense the kelp used to be.’

‘This project is just about as close to re-wilding as we are potentially going to be able to get in the sea. It’s a very exciting and interesting project to be involved in’.

Kelp density in 1980, compared to now (Images copyright Big Wave Productions, Sussex Wildlife Trust)

Kelp: a natural climate change solution?

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Seaweed such as kelp has long been promoted as a health food. Recently, however, scientists have argued that, as well us making us healthier, seaweed could actually improve the health of the planet and even mitigate climate change. With many of the earth’s carbon sinks, such as rainforests, rapidly disappearing, people are turning to other natural solutions, such as kelp forests, to offset carbon.

Globally, this once overlooked habitat absorbs 600m tonnes of carbon each year, equal to twice the UK’s annual carbon emissions. Scientists increasingly suggest, therefore, that restoring kelp forests could contribute to our urgent global need to offset carbon emissions. Furthermore, unlike many forests on land, kelp forests are fireproof, do not compete for demands on space, and grow rapidly, in some cases at a rate of up to 2 feet per day.

This extraordinary family of species has many other potential uses. Seaweed can be used as a biofuel, or spread on fields to provide nutrients to agricultural crops. It has even been reported that marine algae found in seaweed can massively reduce livestock’s methane emissions (a key greenhouse gas) when added to the animals’ feed.

Sarah Ward, however, advises caution when thinking about our kelp in Sussex: ‘Whilst kelp certainly can sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, which is what essentially we as a world are trying to do, we don’t have a lot of detail on the exact figures. It’s unlikely that the kelp restoration will be the answer to all of our problems regarding carbon, but it’s certainly going to be helpful and an important piece of the puzzle. The project is certainly a good news story, but the carbon sequestration aspect is not our only focus.’

She explains that rather than seeing kelp on its own as the answer to climate change, we need to consider the benefit of improving the ecosystem’s biodiversity as a whole: ‘There are many animals that we anticipate would use the rich and diverse kelp habitat, such as seals, dolphins, harbour porpoise – it’s an entire ecosystem in itself. Animals would use it as a nursery ground, a breeding ground, and others would grow on the kelp itself. Many of the creatures that would be living within that ecosystem would be using carbon, so we would have a whole carbon cycling system.’

Catshark swimming through kelp (Image copyright Andy Jackson, Sussex Wildlife Trust)

What can we do to help?

Currently, the main aim of the Help our Kelp partnership is to get a byelaw put in place to exclude trawling from 304 km2 of Sussex coastline. Repeated, long term trawling has been devastating for our kelp forest, tearing kelp from the sea floor and preventing its growth and regeneration. This byelaw needs to be signed off by the secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice MP, to prevent this damaging practice from continuing.

Sarah Ward explains that ‘at the moment, although the project is ongoing, we can’t do much more actively until we get the byelaw signed off by the secretary of state. Until then we’re working behind the scenes and planning for the next stage’.

‘What we’re really trying to do is keep the project as high profile as possible, to keep the pressure on the secretary of state to get that byelaw signed off because we really don’t want it to fall off the radar and just get left for months and years. The most helpful thing the public can do right now is help to keep the project high profile. Sharing links to our website and film on social media is great, as is getting in touch with your local MP or councillors about the project. We want to keep the pressure up until the byelaw is signed.

The Proposed Trawler Exclusion Zone to be created by the byelaw (Image copyright Big Wave Productions, Sussex Wildlife Trust)

Sussex Wildlife Trust asks supporters to:

  1. Click here to learn more about the Help our Kelp partnership.
  2. Write to your local Sussex MP, asking them to urge George Eustice to sign the byelaw.
  3. Like and share Sussex Wildlife Trust’s posts on social media and their website.
  4. Watch and share the Help Our Kelp film narrated by David Attenborough.
  5. Consider marine conservation and sustainability where possible, for example making sustainable choices with seafood, supporting small local fisheries, and getting involved with beach cleans and other conservation activities.

Sarah Ward believes that: ‘I don’t think we’re too late to backtrack on the issues we’ve caused as human beings. I have cautious optimism about the health of our oceans’.

Help our Kelp is certainly a hopeful and exciting example of marine restoration in Sussex, and we look forward to following this project and seeing how it progresses in the future.

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