Seawilding is about enabling natural processes to shape the sea, to repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded seascapes. Charities Seawilding and Project Seagrass are on a mission to do all three. And with incredible success. We caught up with Dr Richard Lilley of Project Seagrass, to see where the last year has taken them.
Underwater Update: Winter 2022
RJ holding a hessian bag during restoration site monitoring in July. The seagrass seedlings are clearly visible indicating successful seed germination.
It’s been a full year since I last penned an ‘Underwater Update’ and I am now left wondering where that time has gone. After COP26 finished in Glasgow the team were exhausted: 2021 had simply been a ‘Super Year’ for seagrass and the demands the year had placed on our team keeping up with all the interest was evident. In Episode 4 of Finisterre’s Hell or High Water podcast Charles Post states how “passion is the currency of conservation”, and as I looked down the dinner table at our Year End team meal that phrase resonated with me, I couldn’t help in being struck by how accurate those words reflected our own reality. Our team were tired and happy, but they needed a break. I certainly couldn’t have asked for any more from them.
Fast forward to 2022 and the demand for marine Nature-based solutions has continued unabated. Of course, it was going to, we are in a climate and biodiversity emergency! Throw into the mix that the oceans are finally being recognised for the critical role they play in maintaining the stability of life on Earth then things were only ever going to get busier.
So, we began our year began with a significant recruitment drive, and for my wife and I the birth of our second child - welcome to the world Alana! For Project Seagrass 2021 had seen the launch of three new seagrass restoration projects, one in Wales, one in England and one in Scotland. It had also been seen the first year for both our restoration innovation projects that focus on taking seagrass restoration to scale: our Seagrass Nursery Pilot in Laugharne, Wales and our SORUP Programme which seeks to help scale seagrass restoration by addressing bottlenecks in the picking, processing, and planting of seagrass seeds.
This year Project Seagrass have grown their first seagrass from seed at their Nursery in Laugharne, Wales.
Throughout the Spring our team continued to grow, and so by the time our field campaigns got underway there were a lot of new faces on board who were about to experience their first field campaign – exciting times!
At the end of June I attended the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon where the message was clear - If we want to address some of the most defining issues of our time such as climate change, food insecurity, diseases and pandemics, diminishing biodiversity, economic inequality and even conflicts and strife, we must act now to protect the state of our ocean.
As with so many of these global conferences, there were some powerful speeches, some headline commitments, and some real causes for optimism. However, the most significant moment of the conference for me personally, and certainly the one that has certainly stayed with me, was the performance of Mia Kami. Mia has written a song for the ocean, a song that highlights the importance of reviving our relationship with the ocean and all that she has done for us.
Following the conference, in early July, our new Operations Lead for Scotland Dr Esther Thomsen joined research colleagues and students from Heriot-Watt University’s International Centre for Island Technology for a week of seagrass biodiversity surveys across the archipelago. The Orkney Isles really are the jewel in Scotland’s crown when it comes to seagrass. For a glimpse into the magic of Orkney’s water world I can’t recommend enough local filmmaker Raymond Besant’s short film.
Biodiversity surveys on Orkney with the Heriot-Watt International Centre for Island Technology.
The Orkney surveys heralded the start of almost 2 months of in, on and underwater activity. Mid-July saw the team travel to the Isle of Wight to commence activities at our sites in The Solent. For those unfamiliar with the geography ‘The Solent’ is the strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland UK, and it is a major shipping lane for freight, passenger, hovercraft, and military vessels. The waterway is also heavily utilised for recreational boating and yachting. Much of the coastline is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (and is included in the Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). The Isle of Wight is also designated as an UNESCO Biosphere reserve. We spent the week there checking on last year’s restoration trials, engaging with the local community and collecting more seeds for further restoration activities next year.
The first two weeks of August were spent in the Pen Llŷn a’r Sarnau Special Area of Conservation in the seagrass meadow at Porthdinllaen. Porthdinllaen was originally built to be a fishing port due to the presence of the natural harbour - the bay has over 40 hectares of safe anchorage. Today the site gets extremely busy in the summer, in part due to the presence of the (now famous) Tŷ Coch Inn. With so many people flocking to the beach each summer it is a wonderful opportunity to introduce people to seagrass and to share our passion with people on the beach.
Community engagement is a central pillar Project Seagrass, and the Isle of Wight provided a fantastic opportunity for people to join them in the field.
The seagrass at Porthdinllaen. Project Seagrass have spent more time studying this meadow than any other in the UK.
The final two weeks of August were then spent back in Orkney, but this time instead of biodiversity surveys we were out in the meadows conducting reproductive surveys to try to quantify the number of seeds the meadows are producing. Informed by this data, we were then able to conduct targeted collection of seagrass seeds for processing at The Ecology Centre in Fife. These seeds will be planted early next Spring in the Firth of Forth.
This trip was also an opportunity to get our WingtraOne drone airborne to try and capture more data on meadow size and location. Whenever we visit Orkney, we are amazed at the extent of the seagrass meadows, but if anything, each visit for us highlights to us just how much work there is to be done to in mapping this precious resource. Our nature agencies need to know where it is!
Dr Esther Thomsen preparing the drone for take-off.
Looking back at this summer and the hive of activity, and then looking further back at the activities of the last 24 months, I’m frankly amazed by just how much we’ve seen the British seagrass community grow, and indeed how we’ve seen a growth in Project Seagrass that reflects that interest. Project Seagrass will be 10 years old in 2023, and so we wanted to take some time to pause on reflect on our journey, but also to look to the future and chart our course together for the next decade.
So, our final update for the year is with respect to our Project Seagrass ‘Strategy Days’ in early October. We managed to get the whole team together (even those currently in Malaysia and Australia who dialled in on ZOOM). It was a wonderful few days of presentations and discussion, and the input and feedback we’ve had from the team has been invaluable in helping to shape our strategy document. There is certainly a reason that they say “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Leanne and RJ on the Isle of Wight this July.
Our strategy days were also the perfect opportunity to announce our new CEO, Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth. We are all thrilled that Leanne is taking us into our second decade as an organisation, and we look forward to sharing our strategy with you all in the new year. But for now, it’s back to COP27 and the next ‘best chance’ to save our species.
Find out more about Project Seagrass and follow their work here.