Under the sea - discovering the work to protect Sussex’s kelp

The Sussex coastline, at 140 miles long, is a rich and diverse habitat for many wildlife, fauna and floral.

In the past a kelp forest stretched all along the Sussex coast from Selsey to Camber Sands, providing a biodiverse habitat for marine life.

Since 1980 it has dramatically declined due to climate change, trawling, pollution and the dumping of sediment.

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In fact, one section from Beachy Head to Selsey Bill has been whittled down to just five per cent of its original range.

PIcture: Rosie McCallum

Steve Allnutt lives in Lancing, West Sussex and has been free diving the kelp on the Sussex coast since 1996.

He shares his videos and photos on his Facebook page Sussex Underwater.

Steve said: “Years ago the Sussex seabed wasn’t actually full of kelp. In fact it was full of a blanket of deep mussels beds elbow deep each time I landed on it while freediving. It covered most of Sussex miles and miles and miles of the sea bed.

“The mussels and the kelp was the perfect partnership. An adult mussel is a powerful, durable and efficient water filter inside a hard shell. It can filter up to ten gallons of water daily, removing algae and organic matter and transforming water from cloudy to clear so that bottom-dwelling plants like the kelp get more light.

Picture: Rosie McCallum

“The sun light of Sussex could then get down to the seabed some 30ft under water approximately four km off the Sussex coast maintaining the Kelp Forests and the balance of all marine life.

“The bad news is the sea bed doesn’t hold mussels beds they have all gone only a small few beds remain.”

Sussex Wildlife Trust explains: ‘Kelp is the name given to a group of brown seaweeds, usually large in size, that are capable of forming dense aggregations known as ‘kelp forests’.’

Due to the decline in the habitat the trust has launched the Help Our Partnership to bring it back, alongside Big Wave Productions, Blue Marine Foundation and Marine Conservation Society.

Picture: Rosie McCallum

One of the key areas it was working on was championing the Nearshore Trawling Byelaw, this prohibits trawling year-round over large areas along the entire Sussex coast closest to the shore.

This came into force in March 2021 and was applauded by Sir David Attenborough, who said: ‘Sussex’s remarkable kelp forests will now have a chance to regenerate to provide a home for hundreds of species, creating an oasis of life off the coast, enhancing fisheries and sequestering carbon in our fight against climate change.”

The protection is of over 300 kilometres of seabed.

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species is a wildlife charity working with Sussex Wildlife Trust and IFCA (Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities) to save the kelp forests.

It has 100 interns who are working in the field, in research, in policy, all of them contributing to better future for the UK’s flora and fauna.

Interns Saul Mallison and Danai Kontou are both working on Sussex’s kelp.

Their work will inform future rewilding plans, helping to fight back against climate change, trawling and pollution, which is severely damaging this important habitat.

Saul said: “Kelp forests form a shield for the coast against the hydraulic power of the ocean, dampening the energy of currents and waves to create a buffer zone. In the UK, kelp forests formed by the genera Laminaria and Saccharina and can sustain a level of primary productivity similar to rainforests, capturing and transferring carbon around coasts through high to low productivity systems.”

Danai has been investigating the kelp’s DNA to find ways it can be better protected as she will be able to identify which are most in need of urgent conservation.

In collaboration with the Natural History Museum and ZSL London Zoo, over the last year Danai has collected oarweed samples from Sussex, Kent, Scarborough and Cornwall, aiming to genetically sequence each population. Her findings will help inform the regeneration of Sussex’s kelp forests, restoring a critical habitat that is in much need of help.

She said: “Under suitable conditions (rocky substrates and cool waters) kelp can grow up to 1 cm a day and form dense underwater forests. However, they remain understudied and are often overlooked due to a lack of interest and their unique biochemistry that complicates genetic analyses.”

PTES is funding Saul who, as part of a joint project with the Natural History Museum and ZSL London Zoo, analysed video footage taken by the IFCA of the Sussex coastline and carefully mapped the sea floor.

Using special software he documented the species seen in the video footage and classified the different habitats he saw. Artificial intelligence models were also used and showed that trawling was indeed having a catastrophic impact on the seabed.

Saul’s work will contribute to plans aiming to change policies and reduce fishing pressures.

It will also measure future changes to the distribution of this habitat, to hopefully show (in time) the recovery of Sussex’s kelp forests and increased fish diversity that call it home.

Nida Al-Fulaij, is general manager at the PTES said: “Conservation work often focuses on glamorous animals we’ve all heard about, ignoring species such as brown seaweed which may seem mundane and boring.

“But it’s critical, it creates a habitat that so many other sea creatures rely on.”

Freediver Steve has seen an increase in the amount of kelp in the last five years.

He posted on Facebook alongside a video: “The first Sussex Kelp bed in 20 years. Looking so healthy in all it’s glory growing towards the sun. The diamond in the rough spreading it’s kelp spores in the tide.”

However, there is still a long way to go to get the kelp back to where it was.

Saul said: “The results of our work indicate that a trawling ban may not be enough - cessation of fishing will not directly restore rocks removed by 30 years of trawling, so intervention such as seeding substrata may be required.

“Natural recovery is linked with availability of adjacent habitats to act as source populations, and while some kelp is seen in Selsey Bill, this is more than 20 km from the former high density kelp forest, it is not clear that this will be sufficient to promote a ‘natural’ recovery.

“Innovative interventions such as ‘green gravel’ may be required to achieve rapid recovery, although such interventions are likely to require significant financial and institutional support.”

For more information on Help Our Kelp, visit sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/helpourkelp

For PTES visit, ptes.org