Vital habitat can grow again – local coastline will see UK’s first kelp rewilding initiative

The pioneering campaign to restore a vast underwater kelp forest off the Sussex coast achieved its first major milestone last week when the introduction of a critical new byelaw was agreed. 

The new byelaw, which will see trawling excluded from a vast 304 km2 of Sussex coastline year-round, was agreed by the Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (Sussex IFCA) on January 23rd. The decision was made following an extensive consultation period, which saw overwhelming support from almost 2,500 people in response to the Help Our Kelp campaign.

Maps showing how kelp has vanished from the coastline in less than 40 years.

Sussex IFCA’s decision brings the first ever UK kelp rewilding initiative one step closer and aims to give the kelp the breathing space it needs to recover. Over time, repeated passes by trawling vessels have torn kelp from the sea floor and prevented natural regeneration, so the alleviation of this major pressure is a critical first step towards recovery.

Sir David Attenborough lent his support to the campaign in October 2019 when he voiced the Help Our Kelp campaign film, showcasing the wealth of wildlife to be found in this diverse habitat.

The new byelaw must now be passed to the Secretary of State at Defra for approval before it can be implemented, so the Help Our Kelp Partnership now hope to see it signed off quickly before another year of trawling damages the seabed in this vulnerable in-shore zone.  

Kelp once stretched along 40 km of the West Sussex coastline from Selsey to Shoreham, forming an underwater forest that extended at least 4 km seaward. It provided a vital habitat, nursery and feeding ground for seahorses, cuttlefish, lobster, sea bream and bass. It locked up huge quantities of carbon, helping to fight climate change, while improving water quality and reducing coastal erosion by absorbing the power of ocean waves.

But within living memory kelp in Sussex waters has diminished to almost nothing. Storm damage, changing fishing practices and the dumping of sediment spoils by dredging boats have taken their toll on this sensitive habitat. The wildlife associated with it has all but disappeared, and the vital ecosystem services it provided have been lost – but there is now a chance to bring it all back.

To support the Help Our Kelp campaign and watch the film narrated by Sir David Attenborough, visit:  sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/helpourkelp

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