Ripple Effect: Why You Should Care about Wales’ Seagrass

Call for urgent action to support seagrass restoration in Wales.

Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth and Laura Evans call for action to support seagrass restoration and explain its importance to Wales’ ecosystem

As COP 27 came to a disappointing close in Egypt, many of us were left feeling concerned about the lack of ambition and progress on phasing out fossil fuels and keeping temperatures below 1.5c. Prioritising impactful action on the climate and nature emergency has never been so important. 

The Welsh Government has shown commitment through its target to reach net zero by 2050 and protect 30% of land and sea by 2030, but making commitments is not enough. We must see rapid delivery of programmes and investment to support this. 

While recently announcing the recommendations from a Welsh Government-led deep dive into biodiversity, the Climate Change Minister Julie James said: 

‘a decade of decisive action” is needed to “jump start the restoration of our ecosystems’

This restoration really is critical if Wales is going to adapt and mitigate against climate change and reverse the ongoing loss of nature.

Seagrass is one habitat that needs urgent restoration on a large scale in Wales. This vital habitat provides many benefits for people and nature but the UK has lost up to 92% in the last century.  

  • Seagrass is an important carbon sink and improves water quality by removing nitrogen and pathogenic bacteria
  • Healthy meadows can help protect communities from the impacts of coastal erosion and flooding
  • A single hectare can harbour up to 80,000 fish and provides important nursery habitat for commercial species

We welcome commitment from the Welsh Government to establish a targeted scheme to support restoration of seagrass in the recommendations of the recent biodiversity deep dive, but we urgently need the detail of what this programme will look like and timeframes.

It takes five to seven years for a seagrass meadow to mature and thrive. We need to act now for Welsh seagrass habitat to be at full strength as an ally in the fight against the climate and nature emergency in a decade’s time. 

Engaging communities in the restoration of seagrass is vital if we want these meadows to thrive and have a sustainable future.

WWF Cymru and Project Seagrass are calling for the Welsh Government to commit visible government support, including investment from the 2023 budget to start delivery of their Seagrass restoration programme and the governance and policies needed to support restoration of seagrass and other important habitats into the future. Wales has an opportunity to lead the way here and demonstrate connected strategies and support for restoration and restoration enablers at a national scale.

A seagrass restoration programme for Wales

To bring seagrass back to the Welsh coast we need a programme that covers four areas, tackling barriers and threats, community led restoration, research and sustainable financing. We have set out a series of recommendations to be delivered in stages over the next 10+ years with activity starting in 2023. 

Project Seagrass and WWF are already working in a number of these areas and for many of the recommendations we make we are seeking to collaborate with the Welsh Government to co-design and co-deliver.  

The unique value that the Welsh Government can bring is to remove or reduce the barriers that are preventing the scaling up of restoration and to act as an enabler, demonstrating leadership and political support in this area.  Most importantly here is establishing supportive frameworks for large scale restoration and revising the licensing process so it is less costly and complex. In the longer term, matching this political will with financial investment can ensure that restoration efforts remain on track and expand.  

Tackling some of the major barriers and threats

The decline we have seen in seagrass habitat has been caused by issues such as pollution – poor water quality, coastal development and damage from swinging chain moorings. To make restoration efforts sustainable, these issues need to be addressed. There are also barriers to anyone looking to carry out seagrass restoration as a marine licence is needed and the application process is expensive, complicated and lengthy. The immediate things that can be done in this area is making it easier for sea users to cause less damage through education and providing alternative mooring with less impact on the sea bed. High priorities in this area must be revisions to the licensing system and programmes to improve water quality. 

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Community-led restoration and management 

Engaging communities in the restoration of seagrass is vital if we want these meadows to thrive and have a sustainable future. The act of planting new seagrass seeds is just the start of the journey. The meadows need to be monitored, topped up with additional seed where patchy and taken care of – think of it like underwater gardening. The best way to do this is to get communities involved in designing and delivering the projects so they understand the importance of the meadows and feel strongly about looking after them. The immediate thing that can be done in this area is to fund the setup of community monitoring initiatives so communities can collect vital data to support the restoration of seagrass habitat in their area. Longer term, once the licensing process is easier and cheaper, the priority is to support communities to develop their own small-scale restoration initiatives. 

Make Wales a Leader in Seagrass Science

Wales is home to incredible expertise on seagrass and there is real potential to establish Wales as a global leader in seagrass science and conservation. Seagrass is a priority habitat right around the world and taking the lead in this field will bring international opportunities. 

This is our chance to bring back this wonder plant to the coast of Wales in the abundance it was a century ago.

Building on our knowledge and driving innovation will also reduce the cost and increase the success of restoration, making it easier to secure the investment needed to restore at a large scale. In the short term the priority is demonstrating the leadership and political will for seagrass science and restoration in Wales through developing supportive frameworks and providing match funding for innovative research. Longer term, the priority is supporting the development of a world leading Centre of Excellence for seagrass conservation and restoration science based in Wales.

Sustainable financing for seagrass restoration 

Restoring and managing natural habitats is a long-term investment and it can’t just sit with governments and charities to deliver. We must find innovative ways to finance this work, bringing in the business and finance community. In the short term the priority is working with the Welsh Government to identify and support innovative financing schemes to help fund the delivery of this programme. Longer term, the priority is to develop the legal framework for investing in blue carbon and biodiversity credits once the essential research in this area has been completed.

 To see a detailed breakdown of the recommendations, including itemised costs and timing for delivery, download our full proposal

What next?

We want to work with the Welsh Government to shape the design and delivery of its seagrass restoration programme. We are willing to share our experience and expertise in this area and provide opportunities for the Welsh Government to support seagrass restoration in non-financial and financial ways. We understand the challenges that face government spending but believe we can be creative in how we work to make the most impact with the limited funds available.  We’re calling on the government to show its commitment to this work through setting up a working group with us to co-design its programme and allocate £500K of the 2023 budget to enable the start of this work. 

This is our chance to bring back this wonder plant to the coast of Wales in the abundance it was a century ago. We need this to meet the challenge of the climate and nature emergency and we owe this to future generations, so they can have a happy and healthy future and enjoy Wales’ beautifully diverse marine environment. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth is Chief Executive Officer at Project Seagrass.
Laura Evans is the communications lead for ocean restoration at WWF Cymru.

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