A Portsmouth marine scientist is helping front a Sir David Attenborough-backed campaign to restore a vast underwater kelp forest off the West Sussex coast.
Sir David voiced the ‘Help Our Kelp’ short film, fronted by, among others, University of Portsmouth marine scientist Dr Ian Hendy, which aired on BBC2.
The campaign team are lobbying for a new byelaw to stop trawling close to the coast.
The film showed how kelp – one of many thousands of varieties of brown seaweed – once stretched along 40km of the West Sussex coastline from Selsey to Shoreham, forming a forest that extended at least 4km seaward. It provided a habitat, nursery and feeding ground for cuttlefish, seahorses, lobster, sea bream and bass, while also locking up vast quantities of carbon, improving water quality and reducing coastal erosion by absorbing the power of ocean waves.
In the past few decades, the kelp forest has nearly vanished entirely, along with the wildlife it supported, because of changes to fishing practices, dumping of sediment and storm damage.
Leading marine campaigners say the forest could be brought back to life, given the right help.
The film’s lead scientist, Dr Hendy, at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Marine Sciences and head of science at Blue Marine Foundation, has decades of expertise in researching and protecting marine habitats around the globe.
He said: “Kelp is an important ecosystem engineer and will reduce impacts from climate change and significantly improve marine biodiversity.
There is still a chance to bring back the kelp forest. By rewilding the kelp forests back to their natural habitat, the oceans will come alive with a diverse abundance of marine wildlife, impacts of climate will be reduced and local fisheries will improve.
The ‘Help Our Kelp’ campaign presents an opportunity to do something amazing.”
The first step to rewilding would be to give the forest a chance to recover.
Campaign partner Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) is proposing a new local byelaw to push trawling out from the coast by at least 4km.
Dr Sean Ashworth, Deputy Chief at Sussex IFCA, said: “If we want healthy seas that are sustainable for wildlife and fishing for generations to come, we urgently need to give our kelp forests a chance to regenerate. The introduction of this new byelaw is critical, and we are now seeking comment and support from the local community to make sure this happens.”
The campaign is led by Sussex Wildlife Trust, Blue Marine Foundation and the Marine Conservation Society. Once the trawling management is in place the partnership will take forward the long-term vision for kelp restoration in Sussex.
Alice Tebb, project coordinator at the Marine Conservation Society said: “Local fishermen used to row their boats off the beach before starting their engines to get clear of the kelp. Now, the kelp is gone and fishermen are reporting fewer fish. Restoring the local kelp forest would bring back this vital fish nursery and feeding ground, helping important commercial species to recover and thrive. The Help Our Kelp campaign will benefit local people now and in the future.”
The film was made by Big Wave Productions and aimed to showcase the wealth of wildlife in kelp forests and the environmental benefits it can bring.
Sarah Ward, Living Seas Officer at Sussex Wildlife Trust said: “As well as providing huge long-term benefits for biodiversity, this pioneering rewilding project will help us to fight climate change. Kelp forests can absorb carbon just as effectively as woodland, if not more so, and we’re able to create this habitat on a scale that simply couldn’t be replicated on land.”
To find out more, visit: sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/helpourkelp