Rewilding: New trawling ban aims to restore once vast kelp forest on Sussex coast

Protection for over 100 square miles of seabed aims to boost biodiversity and sequester carbon

Harry Cockburn
Monday 22 March 2021 17:25
Vast kelp forests used to stretch for miles along the Sussex coast
Vast kelp forests used to stretch for miles along the Sussex coast

Below the choppy waters of the English Channel, the once thriving kelp forests are almost completely gone.

Though they are known to be among the most biodiverse ecosystems on our planet, in recent decades the kelp forests have been ravaged by changing fishing techniques as well as the dumping of sediment on the seafloor.

But a new law aims to protect and “rewild” the area where the kelp once grew, with the hope it will return and regenerate, thereby boosting biodiversity, improving the health of the sea and sequestering carbon.

Historically, kelp was abundant along the Sussex coastline, with records showing mighty forests of the seaweed stretched 25 miles from Selsey to Shoreham, and extended at least 2.5 miles into the Channel.

But this is also a major fishing area, and due to fishing techniques which include trawling and bottom trawling, the kelp has been practically wiped out with just a few small patches and individual plants, mostly in shallow water and along the shoreline.

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The new law bans trawling in an area covering the 117 square miles between Shoreham-by-Sea and Selsey Bill, extending 2.5 miles seaward.

Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority said until the late 1980s this area “held extensive, dense kelp beds that supported abundant marine life, including important commercial fish and shellfish species such as bass, sole, black seabream, lobsters and cuttlefish”.

“The kelp is now largely absent, so the ecology of the area is significantly diminished compared with the recent past.”

Earlier this year a report warned that destructive bottom-trawling fishing techniques were going on in 98 per cent of the UK’s Marine Protected Areas, which campaigners compared to “bulldozing a national park”.

More recent research has revealed that bottom-trawling the seabed results in greenhouse gas emissions of the same enormity as the aviation sector.

Oceans act as an essential buffer to the climate crisis, absorbing more than 90 per cent of the planet’s heat which is increasingly becoming trapped due to the greenhouse effect - largely caused by emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The new protections for the area follows a major campaign by The Help Our Kelp partnership, which is made up of the Blue Marine Foundation, Marine Conservation Society, Sussex Wildlife Trust and Big Wave Productions. It also had the backing of David Attenborough.

Henri Brocklebank, chairman of the Help Our Kelp partnership and director of conservation at Sussex Wildlife Trust, said: “The support of Sussex communities and our elected representatives has been inspirational.

"It shows us the passion that exists for restoring our marine ecosystems and recognising the value that they give to all of us, from food to the protection of our coastline."

A catshark swims through kelp off the Sussex coast

Tim Dapling, the chief fisheries and conservation officer for Sussex IFCA, said: “The authority has spent several years carefully working toward the introduction of this important new management measure.

“There has been great interest and support within Sussex and the wider marine community regarding our work to both protect the marine environment and promote sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries.

“This is a key step toward more sustainable fisheries and delivery of positive outcomes for all. Future work will include assessing habitat recovery, biological productivity and benefits to the inshore fishing community.”

Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, said: “We welcome the signing of the Sussex bylaw, as it is a recognition by government that rewilding the sea is a way to protect marine biodiversity, invest in inshore fisheries and store carbon at a single stroke.

“We believe the Sussex kelp forest will now show the benefits of removing damaging fishing gears from vast areas around the UK coastline and offshore.”

Additional reporting by PA.

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