Reviving the giants of the sea: Why help our kelp?

Reviving the giants of the sea: Why help our kelp?
2nd November 2023

Under the surface of the UK's coastal waters lies a hidden gem that plays a vital role in marine ecosystems - kelp forests. Kelp, a type of large brown seaweed, forms dense underwater forests that provide a habitat for a diverse array of marine species. However, these once thriving kelp forests have faced significant decline due to human activities and environmental changes.

Recognising the importance of kelp ecosystems, efforts to restore and conserve these underwater giants have gained momentum, with organisations like Blue Marine Foundation leading the way. In this article, we'll delve into the significance of kelp restoration in the UK, along with fascinating facts about these magical marine plants which Leaders Romans Group (which we're part of) have chosen to support this year in partnership with GreenTheUK.

Kelp forests, often referred to as the "rainforests of the sea," are dynamic and complex ecosystems found in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the North Atlantic and other regions around the world. In the UK, kelp forests are dominated by species such as Laminaria hyperborea, commonly known as "tangle or cuvie," and Laminaria digitata, also known as "oarweed." These brown seaweeds can grow up to two metres in length, creating underwater canopies that provide shelter and food for an abundance of marine life.

When kelp is healthy and thriving, it can help mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification and support the overall health of marine ecosystems.

Kelp forests also serve as nurseries for juvenile fish and other marine organisms, providing essential shelter and protection during their early life stages. Many commercially important fish species rely on kelp habitats for breeding and foraging, making kelp restoration crucial for maintaining fisheries and sustaining local economies. A natural coastal defence system, the dense, floating canopies reduce the force of waves, helping to prevent coastal erosion and protecting shorelines from storm damage.

Unfortunately, kelp ecosystems have experienced severe declines in recent decades, largely due to human activities. Overfishing including trawling, pollution, coastal development, and climate change have all taken a toll on these delicate habitats. Warming sea temperatures and increasing ocean acidity, resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, have led to "kelp deserts" in some areas where these forests once thrived.

Blue Marine Foundation, a UK-based charity, works tirelessly to protect the world's oceans and promote sustainable fishing practices. They have launched several initiatives aimed at restoring kelp forests and other habitats such as saltmarsh, seagrass and oyster beds in the UK and beyond, partnering with local communities, scientists, and policymakers to implement effective conservation strategies. Through their efforts and other conservation initiatives, significant progress has been made in restoring marine ecosystems. This not only benefits marine life but also contributes to coastal communities by providing natural protection against climate-related events.

This year, Leaders Romans Group (which we're part of) has sponsored 4 kelp survey sites to support the work of Blue Marine Foundation on the Sussex coast. The survey work is a collaborative study with the University of Sussex as part of the Sussex Kelp Recovery Project. The waters off the Sussex coast historically supported dense kelp beds of mixed seaweed with at least six different species of kelps and other large brown macroalgae. To help protect essential fish habitats and remove one of the key barriers to kelp recovery, a Byelaw excludes trawling in the area to give kelp a chance to recover.

The Sussex Kelp Recovery Project (SKRP) was launched to support and enable the natural restoration of kelp and essential seabed habitats in the Nearshore Trawling Byelaw area. Baited Remote Underwater Videos at 28 sites along the Sussex coast will assess diversity and abundance of mobile and benthic-associated species within and outside the Nearshore Trawling Byelaw area.  This annual monitoring programme will inform a better understanding of the trajectory of ecosystem recovery and the value to biodiversity of the Nearshore Trawling Byelaw. In late autumn, we will share the video footage and learnings from the survey sites supported by Leaders Romans Group.

On a global scale, kelp restoration holds immense promise for combating climate change. By protecting, planting and cultivating kelp in degraded areas, we can improve resilience to climate change and overall marine biodiversity. As more research is conducted on kelp restoration techniques, the potential to create sustainable and economically viable solutions increases.

This blog was provided by Green The UK, our partner for conservation and restoration projects.

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