Rewilding the seas
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Our seas are in trouble just as much as our land. At a global level, only 13% of oceanic waters are considered to be truly wild. Elsewhere, the seas have been plundered for vast quantities of fish, and swathes of the sea bed have been stripped of life. This matters because the health of the planet, and ourselves, is bound up with the health of the seas.
‘With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the sea,’ says oceanographer and author, Sylvia Earle.
But despite the urgent need to reverse the catastrophic decline in marine biodiversity, sea-based rewilding projects are far less common than those on land. The Blue Marine Foundation defines rewilding the sea as ‘any effort to improve the health of the ocean by actively restoring habitats and species, or by leaving it alone to recover’.
Healthy seabeds drive a richer marine ecology, so when habitats of the deep blue recover so does everything that relies upon it. From the slow-growing pink maerl that provides perfect spawning grounds for fish, to flame shell reefs and blue mussel beds, right up to ocean giants like humpback whales feeding in the Minch and the Firth of Forth, life can return.
13% of oceanic waters are considered truly wild
Here are eight exciting marine rewilding projects blazing a trail. It’s not an exhaustive list, but we hope there will be many more to follow.
1) Rewilding fish nurseries and saltmarshes across the Essex coastline
Unsung heroes, saltmarshes support diverse plant and animal communities, soak up carbon and reduce flooding. Yet, over 60% of Essex’s saltmarshes have been lost over the last 20 years.
Essex Wildlife Trust has been protecting, restoring and rewilding saltmarsh habitats for many years. Coir structures within selected creeks have been installed at Blackwater and Colne estuary to encourage sediment accumulation and plant growth. Already, over 70 hectares of new intertidal habitat has been created. Within its first five years of rewilding, the Fingringhoe Wick intertidal area is fully functional for feeding wading and wetland birds and acting as a fish nursery for juvenile European bass, sand smelt, thin-lipped grey mullet and common gobies.
Project run by: Essex Wildlife Trust, The Environment Agency
Find out more: Wildlife Trusts, Saltmarshes: the unsung heroes of our coasts
2) Help our Kelp — regeneration of the Sussex Kelps Forests
Magical underwater forests sway at the bottom of our coasts, drawing down more than 600 million tons of carbon dioxide. Once abundant along the Sussex coast, from Selsey to Brighton, only pockets of these once mighty forests remain. Fishing practices (particularly trawling), storm events and aggregate and dredging disposal have destroyed and damaged this habitat.
The Sussex IFCA hasproposed a new bylaw to prohibit trawling up to 4km from the coastbetween Selsey and Brighton and 1km from the coast over the rest of Sussex. Over 2,500 people from the community voiced their support, and the legislation is now awaiting sign-off from DEFRA. This would be a welcome boost for the first ever marine kelp rewilding initiative, and give the kelp the breathing space it needs to recover.
Project run by: Sussex Wildlife Trust, Marine Conservation Society, Blue Marine Foundation and Big Wave Productions
Find out more: Sussex Wildlife Trust: Help Our Kelp
3) Bringing back the European sturgeon
European sturgeon are very rare, but was once one of the most widespread sturgeon species, migrating up our rivers in great schools to spawn. The critically endangered fish is now only found spawning in the Garonne river in France though it is being reintroduced to the Elbe in Germany. This year saw the first French tagged fish returning to the south coast of England.
To restore populations of the European sturgeon in the UK, Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) has formed the UK Sturgeon Alliance. Together, they’re collecting data on the historic presence of European sturgeon in the UK, restoring spawning and feeding grounds, and will eventually reintroduce fish into river systems.
Project run by: UK Sturgeon Alliance (Blue Marine Foundation). Zoological Society of London, Institute of Fisheries Management, Severn Rivers Trust and NatureatWork
Find out more: Blue Marine Foundation: The Royal Fish Returns
4) Operation oyster: restoring Britain’s native stocks
Oysters are the organs of our sea, cleaning our waters, cycling nutrients and helping protect against coastal erosion. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has a bold vision to restore and rewild the once vast oyster stocks to the Humber.
Humber once supported one of the most prevalent native oyster populations, but this mighty harvest didn’t end well. An outbreak of typhoid in 1904, ongoing sewage pollution and bonamia parasite, wiped out the Humber oyster stocks within 40 years.
Before any restoration, Humber needed to see a vast improvement in its water quality. This goal was finally met following the long-term influence of conservation legislation reducing many sources of pollution. The cleaner water has paved the way to a new partnership to reintroduce 3,000 oysters. Seabed restoration has begun, reintroducing juvenile oysters and harvested empty shells to build up ‘cultch’ (the stony, shelly base layer of an oyster bed).
Project run by: Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, The University of Hull
Find out more: Wildlife Trusts: Restoring oysters on the humber
5) ReMEDIES project — Saving seagrass and maerl seabed habitats
The LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES project is protecting and restoring seagrass alongside Maerl seabeds, both which are easily damaged and slow to recover.
Through reseeding and replanting seagrass and installing advanced boat mooring systems (which are less damaging), this massive restoration project will host huge benefits for wildlife and sequester carbon.
Training 2,000 recreational users, seeds will be collected for replanting seagrass (a first for England at this scale) and advanced mooring systems will be rolled out that are more gentle on delicate underwater habitats.
Already, The Ocean Conservation Trust is currently cultivating up to 25,000 plants a year. The aim is to restore up to four hectares of lost seagrass meadows in the Plymouth Sound, and work has already started following the first seed collection.
Project run by: Natural England, Marine Conservation Society, Royal Yachting Association (RYA), Ocean Conservation Trust, & The Green Blue
Find out more: LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES Project
6) Restoring seagrass off north Wales
North Wales is the hub of the first and largest seagrass restoration project ever conducted in the UK. Over 1 million seagrass seeds have been collected by Project Seagrass and their dedicated team of volunteers in Porthdinllaen, North Wales, which have been grown in aquaria and then planted in Dale, West Wales. This new healthy habitat aims to boost marine life and storing carbon, and to become a living laboratory to showcase that marine rewilding is possible.
Seagrass Ocean Rescue is now working with more partners to upscale seagrass restoration, this includes enhancing automation and using sequencing to analyse and understand the microbial associations of seagrass. A major stepping stone in supporting future rewilding seagrass projects.
Project run by: Project Seagrass, Sky Ocean Rescue, WWF, Cardiff University, Swansea University and Pembrokeshire Coastal Forum
Find out more: Project Seagrass: Seagrass Open Rescue
7) Rewilding a portion of the seas through a no-take zone off Arran
The Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) spearheaded a campaign that established the first community-developed Marine Protected Area in Scotland. It gave citizens a voice in a debate that has been dominated by the commercial fishing industry. In 2008, Lamlash Bay (a small sliver of 2.67 sq. km) was successfully listed as a ‘no-take zone’. Left to rewild, lobster and scallop numbers have quadrupled within the no-take zone, and scallops have not only got bigger but have increased six-fold in the larger Marine Protected Area. Divers also spotted a cuckoo ray, the first seen in the area for 30 years.
Project run by: Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST)
Find out more: COAST
8) Returning oyster maternity wards in River Conwy
Oysters have been the victim of over-harvesting, habitat loss, pollution and disease, suffering declines of over 95%. This ambitious collaboration aspires to restore 10,000 wild native oysters in Wales.
The three-year project will create and install 45 oyster nurseries. The oysters’ new habitat will be created by adding layers of old oyster shells and stones to the seabed. This will improve the environment for the young oysters, known as spat. Suspended under marina pontoons, the nurseries will contain adult oysters that will release their young into the environment. Once thriving and left to rewild, they should mature into nursery grounds for sea bass, bream and edible crabs.
Project run by: Zoological Society of London, Blue Marine Foundation, British Marine
Find out more: Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative