Story of hope

In Sussex, just a few hundred metres from busy coastal towns like Shoreham-by Sea, Worthing and Bognor Regis, a story of hope is emerging, as historic kelp forests lost for decades are beginning to flourish, demonstrating the ocean’s ability to recover when it’s protected from destructive fishing activity such as trawling.

Words by Oceanographic Magazine
Photographs by Bigwave & Martin Stevens

On the UN International Day of Forests (21 March 2023), the Sussex Kelp Recovery Project, a coalition of seven local and national organisations, celebrates its second anniversary with first-hand accounts of “unbelievable changes in fish and bottom structure,” with sightings of electric rays and trigger fish, unseen in the area for decades.

The project has been championed by local communities, academics, NGOs and statutory bodies all coming together with the same aim – the recovery of Sussex’s kelp forest

Kelp forms beautiful underwater forests which are some of the most productive and biodiverse habitats on the planet. In northern Scotland, they are home to seals and, as documented in the first episode of David Attenborough’s Wild Isles, the largest predator native to UK waters – orcas (killer whales).

In Sussex, an extensive kelp forest once stretched along more than 40km of the coastline between Shoreham-by-Sea and Selsey Bill.  Tragically, by the start of the 21st Century, over 96 per cent of the kelp bed had disappeared, bar a few small patches. Having survived huge storms for centuries, the kelp didn’t return after the storm of 1987, following years of trawling and other human pressures decimating the seabed, which kelp depends on to colonise.

Two years ago, a local fisheries management byelaw was passed, stopping the fishing method of towing trawls along the seafloor. The Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA)’s Nearshore Trawling Byelaw now excludes trawling from 304 square kilometres of Sussex seabed to protect essential fish and marine habitats and support sustainable inshore fisheries.

Sir David Attenborough welcomed the Byelaw at the time: “Sussex’s remarkable kelp forests will now have a chance to regenerate and 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. This large-scale protection of over 300 square kilometres of seabed is a vital win in the fight against the biodiversity and climate crises.”

Early signs of regeneration are positive. Local diver Eric Smith, part of the Sussex Underwater team, notes: “Vast mussel beds are binding the seabed back together with large plaice feeding on them. The kelp is holding its own and many other things are coming back, like soft and hard corals and anemones.  The inshore rockpools are teeming with life such as hermit crabs that have been almost nonexistent in the last ten years, with blennies and many more creatures for the kids to find and wonder over. As for the fish life, I filmed the first electric ray I had seen for 40 years, and trigger fish have turned up in several spots. Also, large sting rays are back in numbers from Selsey to Worthing.”

He continued: “Lobsters are coming back to their old haunts in numbers. Small bass are being filmed by people just off the beach with undulated rays being spotted by paddle boarders 400 metres out. The sea is teeming with white bait, going around like a murmuration of starlings. As Howard Carter said when first looking into Tutankhamun’s tomb, ‘I see wonderful things’.”

This message of hope is gleaned from information shared by the active Sussex diving community, by local fishers and is also starting to be reflected by a comprehensive programme of scientific research, which is being undertaken to benchmark and monitor change.

Universities, NGOs and fishermen are coming together, employing multiple techniques to assess changes in abundance and diversity of species, while local communities work together to understand if there is more that can be done to support the recovering kelp. Recovery efforts such as this are vital in the current biodiversity crisis and time of climatic change.

Tim Dapling, Chief Fisheries and Conservation Officer for the Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Sussex explains: “Since introducing the Byelaw in March 2021, our Authority is delighted at the continuing high level of interest and support for this trawling management measure to regenerate marine biodiversity and abundance and aid recovery of the marine ecosystems.”

“The Sussex Kelp Recovery Project is a committed professional partnership of experienced researchers, fisheries managers and conservation bodies that has rapidly established a comprehensive research programme, to monitor recovery within large parts of the 304 km2 in which trawling is prohibited.”

He added: “I anticipate that, as part of future work and to protect Beachy Head East Marine Conservation Zone, the Sussex IFCA will seek to extend trawling protection to at least another 100km2 over the next year. At the heart of future success is a need to support sustainable ways of managing the marine environment that enable coastal communities to gain long term benefits, including flourishing sustainable low impact inshore fisheries.”

Henri Brocklebank of Sussex Wildlife Trust, who chairs the Sussex Kelp Recovery Project said: “The past two years have been a rollercoaster bringing together a sophisticated programme to monitor kelp recovery, and ensuring that the recovery of the Sussex kelp is a shared ambition of many individuals and organisations. This is a story that needs to be told by many different voices, as the passion for its success runs deep here in Sussex. The excitement for kelp recovery has been unprecedented, and we will continue to work together to do everything we can to support the recovery of our marine ecosystem in Sussex.”

Sam Fanshawe of Blue Marine Foundation said: “From the introduction of a landmark Byelaw led by Sussex IFCA which created one of the largest areas protected from trawling on the south coast, to the pioneering research and surveys, and the communities and people that are passionate about restoring our seas, the Sussex Kelp Recovery Project report summarises the journey of Sussex kelp recovery so far and how a collective effort is literally putting kelp back on the map.”

Dr Raymond Ward, Reader Marine Sciences at the University of Brighton, added: “We have already seen anecdotal evidence of an increase of larger predators including dolphins, seals, several ray species, smooth hound sharks and some commercially important fish species in the area covered by the Byelaw, as well as some recovery of the once extensive kelp beds in West Sussex. This is really exciting to see the potential of the project from an ecosystem recovery perspective that could have knock on effects to a range of marine services including wave dampening, water purification, increased light availability and clarity, as well as carbon storage.”

Removing the impact of trawling is expected to have a profound effect on the ability of the kelp habitats and ecosystems to recover to their former healthy state.  The Sussex Kelp Recovery Project is leading a collective journey, bringing together a wide network of people and organisations, all with a common vision for nature recovery on a grand and pioneering scale.

If you want to find out more about the ocean forests of Sussex, read this feature that was originally published in Issue 15 of Oceanographic. 

And, if you want to find out more about the project, click here


Photographs by Bigwave & Martin Stevens

Printed editions

Current issue

Back issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.