Gardens of Great Britain

Words by Mark Parry
Photography by Georgie Bull

The water was bitterly cold, surface conditions were horrible, and we bounced all over the boat on our way to the deep dive site.

Whilst putting on our dive kit we were thrown from side-to-side, struggling to put heavy equipment on our backs, I was slightly nervous about a deep dive. We were just a few miles off the Devon (UK) coast, where I had learnt to swim as a child. We jumped into the icy cold water and descended 30m into the abyss. As a child I’d stood on the beach looking out to sea and my assumption was there is nothing on the seabed but sand. As we descended, I expected to see bare sand, but instead, I saw deep rock gullies covered with life. Just 30m down off the coast of South Devon there was a rich variety of different colour sponges, thousands of brightly coloured anemones, hundreds of urchins slowly grazing on the algae covered rocks, with vibrant wrasse protectively guarding their nests. The ocean that had provided me with so much joy entertainment as a child was also the most unexpectedly beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

There is an assumption of British waters that there is not much down there, but nothing could be further from the truth – our coastal waters are some of the most productive fisheries on the planet. Landing statistics for British fish are very high in comparison to the rest of the world, so consider, where do those fish live? As divers we get to see that and as a conservationist it is my job to communicate this. My first deep dive changed my view of British waters and diving forever.

I was born in Plymouth in the mid-70s, and during that period there wasn’t a huge emphasis on environmental conservation or promotion of marine issues. The beach was somewhere we went, not as day out, but as just another environment to play in, like exploring the woods or moorlands around Plymouth. My friends and I spent pretty much every day on our bicycles, cycling to swimming spots in rivers and the ocean – we all grew up as water babies whether that be fresh, or salt water.

These days, I work as a seagrass ecologist and project manager at the Ocean Conservation Trust (OCT). This year, we planted the first seeds in the OCT seagrass cultivation laboratory at the National Marine Aquarium as part of a major £2.5 million habitat restoration project funded by EU LIFE and led by Natural England. The laboratory has now been filled with the test batch of approximately 60,000 seeds – all of which we collected by hand – marking an important milestone in the three-year LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES habitat restoration project. As part of this project, we will be cultivating up to 360,000 plants a year in the new laboratory, to help restore up to eight hectares of lost seagrass meadows in the UK.

snakelocks anenome
UK seagrasses seagrass meadow
snakelocks anenome plymouth seahorse

I have studied seagrass habitats for many years now, and it has historically been greatly underrepresented. It’s a highly significant ecosystem that contributes an enormous amount to coastal communities, both animal and human. I found it interesting growing up in a coastal community that many local people seemed to know more about far flung coral reefs then they did about the marine habitats on their own doorstep. Conservation is about people and trying to look after the natural world so that the interactions we have with nature are productive and harmonious. What interests me personally about seagrasses is that the habitat has an impact on the community I live in and the community I live in has an impact on the habitat. This for me is about living sustainably, not putting up barriers so people can’t access areas but instead existing with them in a sustainable way.

In the seven years that I’ve been working on seagrasses, I’ve seen the landscape of these meadows alter detrimentally through human action. Where seagrass exists with little human influence they can thrive, and there are some great examples of very healthy seagrass beds around Britain. But where we see increased activity around these habitats, we also see a degradation of the habitat. I believe that due to a lack of understanding, people don’t always realise that they’re damaging these vital habitats. Whilst I’ve witnessed the degradation of some of these locations, I’ve also seen their significance become more widely understood. After an estimated 90% loss of seagrass meadows over the past 100 years, I’ve seen a change in attitudes – an understanding that it’s time to restore what’s left.

The long-term aim of the reforestation of the UKs seagrass meadows is to demonstrate an effective and efficient way of restoring subtidal seagrass habitat. With considerable loss there are large areas around the UK that have the potential for restoration. With habitat restoration, we restore the ecosystem services that our coastal systems have lost. Communities gain the financial benefits of having these highly productive habitats, our coastal waters are regulated through the presence of these vegetative habitats and contribute towards locking away carbon for millennia, providing these habitats remain in place. The projected impacts are that we recover what we lost, and we hand an ocean environment over to the next generation that is able to provide for them, so that they are also able to appreciate the benefits of healthy ocean systems.

Ocean conservation has for many years focused upon key megafauna umbrella species and there have been some fabulous successes in bringing some endangered species back from the brink. However, these individual species do not form habitats, and they are not at the bottom of trophic levels, enabling all other life to be supported. In an ever-changing world faced with a climate emergency, ocean conservation is moving away from species conservation because we’re witnessing whole ecosystems collapse. Without ecosystems, charismatic animals higher up the chain will have nowhere to start life or shelter from predation as juveniles.

Seagrasses are a primary producer – the plant is a complex habitat forming organism. The plants turn bare sediment into a rich and diverse home for some of our rare marine species and commercial fish species. The plant is the first to grow forming a complex canopy where algae start to grow on the leaves, which in turn support grazers of that algae, which then supports predators. Seagrasses are the base of the trophic structure of marine biodiversity around our coasts.

As with all plants, seagrasses use carbon to form their bodies and through that process admit oxygen. Every second breath we take comes from the ocean, and seagrasses play a vital role in removing carbon and emitting oxygen. Not only do they store carbon within their bodies when forming meadows, but the habitat acts as a filter removing organic carbon from the water column and locking that in the sediments. Seagrasses are one our secret weapons in the fight against climate change.

Seagrasses are the only true plants that have evolved to be salt tolerant. There is an adaptation in the cell wall that removes salt before it enters the cell, which is normally toxic to other plants. By studying seagrasses we seek to find out whether we could mimic that adaptation and transpose it into commercial crops used for food – then we’d enable the development of crops that could be watered with salt water. If achievable, that would be the holy grail for feeding some of the world’s poorest communities. It is quite a significant adaptation within the plant kingdom.

Seagrass faces multiple pressures that range between pollution issues and physical disturbance, but ultimately, few people appreciate that we as individuals have a direct influence on seagrass meadows by how we choose to live our daily lives. The same can be said for the ocean as a whole but focusing upon seagrass meadows, if we don’t consider as individuals what chemicals we dispose of from our homes – for example, garden fertilisers or domestic cleaning products – we fail to understand our direct impact on our coastal waters.

UK seagrasses plymouth
UK seagrasses Ocean Conservation Trust
UK seagrasses black goby

Being a surfer, a commercial diver and a professional involved in marine habitat restoration I witness first-hand the influences of unsustainable lifestyles and the effect on our vital coastal habitats that provide us with so much. I think the greatest reason for habitat loss is that we fail to see that we are inextricably linked to the natural world.

Conservation is for people and it starts with people, so if conservation organisations don’t bring a community of people along with them on their journey, they will fail in their conservation objectives, since the community will be the biggest advocate for driving change in policy. It is the job of conservation organisations to build connections, to build community, to build dialogue, and eventually to build consensus that our natural world is something that we rely upon and that we need to live sustainably within it. If we don’t, it will be the individual that experiences the consequences of that.

Our ocean is the biggest influence on our climate and our climate influences our ocean. With a growing public awareness that we are in a climate emergency and by highlighting the connection between the ocean and climate I think people will think more about their impact on the ocean and therefore the climate, thus promoting ocean positive behaviour. My hopes for the future of UK ocean spaces are that they remain as rich and diverse as they are today. I’ve witnessed some elements of our ocean spaces change negatively but I’ve also seen some of them change positively. I hope we can continue to have a positive influence on it because when I really think about it, the ocean has had a very positive influence on me. I guess myself and the ocean sort of have this reciprocal agreement – it has a very positive impact on me, so I in turn try to be a positive ally of the ocean.

Additional shots courtesy of The Ocean Conservation Trust and (centre, stock photo) The Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

Photography by Georgie Bull