Seawilding: How This Scottish Charity Is Saving The Coastline
Seagrass conservation charity Seawilding tell us how they're restoring Scottish marine life one loch at a time.
Do you know what’s in our seas or the health of the UK's coastlines? A passionate community based in Argyll, Scotland took to the waters of Loch Craignish to find out.
What they found ignited a community-led project to restore seagrass habitats and the native oyster population.
Now known as Seawilding, the charity is pioneering new habitat restoration methodologies to boost marine biodiversity and empower other coastal communities to do the same.
pebble's Features Editor Francesca Brooking spoke to Danny Renton, CEO of Seawilding about why seagrass and native oyster restoration is important, what a typical day on the loch looks like and the vital role communities play in local conservation.
Can you tell me a little bit about Seawilding?
Seawilding is a charity which formally started two years ago but it’s been rumbling on before that.
It’s based in Argyle on the West Coast of Scotland and it’s working to restore inshore marine habitats at community level.
We’re based in Loch Craignish which is a very typical sea loch like the ones you can see all up Scotland’s West Coast.
The biodiversity in the loch is not what it once was and this is due to a whole multitude of things such as scallop dredging and bottom trawling which destroys seabed habitats.
It’s also due to extensive aquaculture salmon farming, which produces a lot of environmental damage, with things like nitrogen runoff from farms.
Our community is around 500 people here. And we have a living memory of the rich biodiversity here, certainly in numbers, but most of it is gone.
We set up Seawilding to try and restore some of the obvious things that are endangered in the sea loch.
One of them is native oysters.
These used to be commonplace around the UK and were eaten in vast numbers. Now they've gone from just about everywhere.
The other one is seagrass.
We have about four and a half hectares of seagrass in the loch. We think there are about 80 hectares where it should be and isn't so we're trialling different restoration methods.
The idea is to use the loch as a test bed to refine methodologies for putting things back into the water that have gone missing.
In Scotland, we call them Priority Marine Features. Once we’ve worked out how best to do it we can roll these projects out to other communities around Scotland so they can do the same.
Why is seagrass so important to our environment? Why is it under threat?
Seagrass is important because it's basically like a wildflower meadow. It’s the ocean’s only flowering plant.
So imagine walking through a wildflower meadow and all the biodiversity you see associated with that - the bees, the butterflies, the insects etc, and seagrass is the same.
it's a really important fish spawning ground and a fish nursery.
Furthermore, it's a vital carbon sink. Seagrass is a bit like the peatlands of the sea.
If you swim in the seagrass, that meadow may have been there for thousands of years.
However, the science estimates that around 90% of seagrass has gone around the UK coastline.
Learn more about the importance of seagrass: She Saves Seagrass On The Seashore: Why Seagrass Is Vital For Britain
What does a typical day on the loch working on seagrass conservation look like?
It depends. Not much goes on in the winter. Nothing's growing so there's nothing much to do.
The seagrass restoration really kicks off in August, September and October, which is when we start harvesting the seeds.
That involves people going out in the water wearing snorkels and wetsuits and literally harvesting them by hand.
The seed looks like grains of rice embedded in the blades of grass. We pick it. We bring it back to the processing unit.
All the biomass rots down in tanks, the seed drops to the bottom, we extract the seed, and then we plant the seed using different methodologies.
Up to now, we've been using little Hessian bags - one bag per square metre - and it gives the seed purchase on the seabed and protects it from predators.
Read about other projects that have also been helping this issue Saving Formentera’s Ocean Meadows
The rest of the year is busy too. We were out grading a thousand oysters two days ago. Tomorrow, the Marine Scotland Fish Health Inspectors are coming to look at what we're doing.
Six people from Nature Scotland are coming to snorkel in the seagrass the following weekend. We’ve also got lots of training for other community groups who are coming to learn what we're doing.
Is Loch Craignish a protected area of conservation? How are you protecting the work you’re doing?
Loch Craignish is not protected.
Much of the Scottish seabed has been torn up by scallop dredging and there's only something like 4% of marine protected areas in Scotland that actually protect it from this most destructive form of fishing.
Most of Scotland's Marine Protected Areas (called MPAs) are meaningless.
However, there’s no level of protection here at all so we’re going through the process of applying as a community for Demonstration and Research Marine Protected Area status.
It will give us an extra level of protection in the loch to stop some of these damaging practices.
It also formalises what we're doing as a Demonstration Research Area.
Why are you restoring the native oyster population at Loch Craignish?
If you go to a restaurant and order oysters, they’re rarely the native kind.
It would be a Pacific oyster which is a different species. Those are the ones that are farmed around the UK.
The reason why people don’t really farm native oysters is that they’re very slow growing, fickle and prone to disease.
But, up to 50 years ago, you would be eating native oysters in Britain. They were the food of the masses in London and now, they’re almost gone.
Likewise in Edinburgh. They were harvesting millions every year from the First of Forth. But in these places, they've almost completely gone.
However, they were the bedrock of an ecosystem. It's a bit like ploughing all the meadowlands and having no grass and wildflowers anymore. You’ve just got bare soil.
Discover oyster power: 5 reasons why oysters are more sustainable than you think
The North Sea was once covered in them and they say it was blue as opposed to pea green because native oysters can filter and clean the water.
Here in Loch Craignish and many other Scottish sea lochs, we know there was a huge native oyster population in Victorian times. Some of them weighed up to a kilo - they were huge!
They littered the seabed and cleaned the water.
An adult native oyster will filter around something like 200 litres in 24 hours.
So if you put 10 big oysters in a tank full of muddy water, 24 hours later, the tank is clean, the water is clean, and there's lots of shit all over the ground.
They're really important for removing the nitrates and phosphates in the water column. So they’re vital for the health of the sea.
Additionally, when they're there in numbers, they clump together, form 3D reefs on the seabed and become spawning grounds and fish nurseries.
We're restoring a million native oysters to Loch Craignish.
We have a hatchery we work with. They bring them at fingernail size, we grow them up to about the size of a 50 pence piece.
Then we put them down and seabed and monitor them.
What are the key lessons you’ve learnt from focusing on one area of conservation? How can they be applied on a larger scale?
All these things can be scaled up, there just has to be the political will to do it. The sea is the victim of human short-sightedness and ignorance.
It’s only recently that we’ve learned about the importance of the seabed and seagrass. We’ve just plundered it with fishing.
It's nonsensical driving a massive tractor over the seabed so all the ecosystems that once existed there and have developed over millennia are destroyed just like that.
Now we've done it to most of the seabed. That's why there are no fish left on the West Coast of Scotland. The main fisheries here are now lobsters crabs, scallops and prawns. Most of the fish have gone.
There needs to be political will to ban anything destructive in the water and only allow sustainable fisheries but that’s not happening at the moment.
Communities are increasingly waking up to job losses resulting from the lack of biodiversity and they want to get more involved in how their inshore is managed.
Why is it important to encourage local communities to be a part of restoration projects?
The thing about the sea, most of it is out of sight and out of mind.
People go on holiday to the coast and they think everything's perfect. What they're not looking at is what's down below which is not perfect at all.
Once people start getting into the water and swimming through seagrass, or broadcasting native oysters from the shoreline back into the water by hand, they feel empowered, they're doing something.
And they’re learning.
That's the thing we've noticed in our community. Everybody loved the loch but very few people actually knew what was down below.
On one of our open days last year, we had 60 people, 40 of them in the water in wetsuits helping to harvest seagrass.
It's empowering not only from an information sense in that suddenly people realise what’s there and what’s not - but also that they can do something about it.
The second reason is this only works when people are invested in it, have skin in the game and also look after it.
We have communities that are interested in what's happening now, and they care.
What are the types of skills and training volunteers need to get involved with projects like Seawilding? How can they acquire them?
We do have specific days when volunteers get involved and it's in the water so there are certain amount risks which we have to be careful of.
We also have days when we have volunteers coming to release oysters into the water at a low spring tide. They come to a pre-surveyed site and they get a bag of a thousand oysters to spread into the water.
There’s an open day in August where people come to help harvest seagrass so they need to be competent snorkelers.
There are days when we have to clean 10,000 oysters by hand and we have volunteers helping with that.
We also have days when we're bagging out seagrass seeds. It's very labour intensive and volunteers help too.
Do volunteers come from all over or do you just work with local communities?
We get people from all over but the trouble is we can get inundated as we’re in quite a small place. That’s why we like to focus more on our local community.
We have a system where we put people who inquire about volunteering on a list and we get in touch when we need them.
Would you consider expanding the project to other sea lochs as well?
We've started other projects elsewhere.
We're about to start our fourth native oyster restoration up in Loch Broom in Ullapool but we don’t want to do it ourselves.
We want to train other community groups to do it instead.
We're looking for other community groups who have the capacity, enthusiasm and interest to do what we're doing.
Seawilding started with a group of people who were just enthusiastic about it and it grew.
We're always interested in hearing from other community groups who want to do it too.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start their own local conservation project?
It’s hard work, there's a lot of paperwork and you need licences. Whilst you can wade into the water and destroy things almost with impunity, you can't wade in and put things back again easily.
The best thing you can do is find a group of like-minded people because you can't do it on your own. It's just it's too much work.
The next step is to start surveying your local area. It’s one of the first things we teach groups to do.
Start identifying species so you can see what's important and what's common.
Get familiar with your local area and ideally, go snorkelling.
If you find seagrass or you find native oysters then you're onto something. You should also report them to Natural England or Nature, Scotland too because they're protected species.
You can then start looking at restoration opportunities but it involves a lot of habitat mapping, surveying talking to Natural England etc.
There are projects starting up all around the UK but you have to be rigorous about the science and get it right.
Learn more about seagrass and native oyster restoration projects and donate at Seawilding.
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