UK’s largest ever seagrass project targets the Solent and Plymouth waters

seagrass bundles by Portsmouth

A £2.5m project to restore the UK’s seabeds is on course toplant a total of eight hectares of seagrass meadows – four in Plymouth Sound and four in the Solent Maritime Special Area of Conservation.

LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES, led by Natural England, has planted around 3.5 hectares of seagrass already. In March 2022, a team planted 20,000 seed bags in the Solent, and in early summer 2022 the team plans to plant another half hectare in Plymouth Sound and two more hectares in the Solent. The organisation then plans to plant more seagrass bags in November 2022.

“Seagrass meadows are one of the most valuable and biodiverse habitats on the planet,” says Mark Parry, development officer at the Ocean Conservation Trust. “By restoring seagrass, we are ensuring they will continue to provide vital environmental benefits to both people and the planet.

“We are very proud to be the restoration lead in this project and are grateful for communities in both Plymouth and the Solent volunteering their time to help us restore such an important habitat.”

In March 2022, 6,000 seedling bags were packed by volunteers at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. They were then transported to the Solent where around 130 volunteers packed a further 14,000 bags.

Research shows the UK has lost at least 44 per cent of its seagrass since 1936. One of the biggest risks to the UK seabed is physical disturbance from activities such as the anchoring, launching and mooring of leisure boats.

As well as the seed bags, LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES is also growing seedlings at the ReMEDIES cultivation laboratory at the National Marine Aquarium (NMA) in Plymouth.

“The public can visit that area and there’s also displays and lots of information about the project. There’s also a window where people can see the tanks where the seagrass has been grown. Some plants are about 15 centimetres tall. They will then be taken out and loaded to the seabed by divers,” says project manager Wendy Johnson.

Seagrass planting in the Solent

From schoolchildren to retired folk,LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES has had hundreds of volunteers help pack the seedbags since the project began.

“We’re usually oversubscribed,” says Johnson. “There’s only so many people we can get to an area. So it’s been really well supported. And we’ve always had enough volunteers do that. It’s quite a laborious job but people really get into it.”

Readers can get involved in the project by volunteeringjoining an event, or getting a school involved in its education programme.

Seagrass beds are ecosystems that provide a habitat for juvenile fish, including many commercially important species such as pollock, plaice and herring.

As part of ReMEDIES, the Ocean Conservation Trust (OCT) is also trialling methods of planting seedlings directly into the seabed. They are currently growing square ‘pillows’ of multiple seedlings in the lab of the NMA which will be transferred to the seabed at the Plymouth Sound site using divers.

One of the main aims of the project is to raise awareness of this vital underwater plant. Seagrass is the only flowering plant to grow in marine environments. It produces oxygen and captures carbon dioxide.

They offer food and shelter for protected creatures, help to reduce coastal erosion, clean surrounding seawater, and capture and store carbon and can be as effective as our woodlands. This makes the plant paramount to the Blue Carbon Agenda.

Other threats to the UK seabed include seagrass wasting disease and pollution.

“People can’t avoid seagrass because it likes growing in nice, sheltered bays, which is where boaters hang out,” says Johnson.

The plant does not appear on nautical charts, so it can be difficult to spot. Habitat maps are available on the LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES website but the organisation says it is currently working with the RYA to create charts that will highlight the areas where the plant grows so that boaters can avoid it. Last year, the Royal Yachting Association responded to the Marine Management Organisation over plans to ban boats from Studland Bay in order to protect the marine habitat.

Boaters are also encouraged to use the mobile app SeagrassSpotter to help highlight and locate the plant.

Initially a four-year project, LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES is currently seeking a year-long extension.

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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.

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