By Ian Hendry
My connection to the Sussex coast started as a teenager. I would often go swimming and fishing, and you would see thick and vibrant kelp forests swaying in the clear water – bursting with marine animals, fish everywhere. With friends, sometimes we would snorkel the kelp forests and I remember the area was a thriving underwater forest full of baby fish, often with shoals of larger fish cruising about.
Aged 14, I became an inshore commercial fisherman working the Hampshire and Sussex waters. I remember the kelp forests were a significant biodiversity hotspot. We would catch large bass, lobsters and pollack, now unfortunately a distant memory. Back then, we were able to take part of our wages in the catch, so I opted to take home lobsters each week. I'd then cycle them to a secret spot and immediately release them back into the Solent. Very early on, I think marine conservation was firmly in my sights.
It took me a while but, aged 30, I made the decision to study marine biology at Portsmouth University and I eventually went on to complete a PhD in 'marine vegetated habitats' working on mangrove forests. This led to a big interest in our cold-water kelp forests. All these underwater forests are extremely important for the life below and above the water. They oxygenate the water and the air we breathe. They reduce the threats from climate change, reduce storm surges, and provide vital habitat for hundreds of juvenile and vulnerable marine animals. I call them ecosystem engineers, they magnificently benefit the ecology and our environment.
My work with the Blue Marine Foundation aims to create thriving coastal fisheries with functioning ecosystems. By rewilding key habitats and working with local communities and stakeholders to significantly reduce impacts from mobile fishing (by using static fishing methods capped to a maximum yield) we can greatly improve the ecosystem structure and function, animal biodiversity, abundance, biomass and productivity. In addition, by helping our fishermen become low impact and sustainable they will catch more fish due to the positive impacts to the environment – as evidenced by our brilliant Lyme Bay model .
When I learnt so much of our Sussex kelp had vanished in just 40 years, and that there was an exciting initiative to #HelpOurKelp, I absolutely HAD to get involved. Our ocean habitats are in severe need of restoration. If ever you want a reason for why this should happen, look at the catastrophic events that led to the loss of the rich kelp forests in Monterey Bay, California. These losses led to the collapse of the whole ecosystem, which created a ‘marine desert’ void of life. The once-thriving fishing communities and industries had to close. This is exactly what could happen here in Sussex. Learning from the California disaster, we have a massive opportunity to rewild a lush underwater forest that will be the genesis of new and abundant life, bringing huge benefits to local communities. All we need to do is give it a chance to regrow, and we can return our waters to a healthy, thriving natural metropolis.
Ian Hendy is a senior teaching fellow at the University of Portsmouth; Head of Science for the Blue Marine Foundation; and Science Lead for the #HelpOurKelp project