Seagrass in a pandemic

By Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist, Marine Protected Areas, UK Marine Conservation Society.

In September 2020 we were invited aboard retired yachtsman Chris Cooling’s yacht Allegra to venture to a southern English seagrass bed to plan a monitoring project in September 2020. Here we recount our first meeting.

Chris invited us to join him on a trip to Osborne Bay - one of England’s richest seagrass beds. ‘Us’ was anyone involved in the ReMEDIES project - a multi-partner, four-year project trying to restore damaged wetlands in five Marine Protected Areas in England’s south coast.

On this particular day, I was joined by Kate Fortnam who described being in her ‘ultimate job’ as the Campaign Manager of the Royal Yachting Associations ‘Green Blue’ initiative. Her job is to make sailors more aware of the environment around them and to recommend environmentally-friendly boating practices; from not disturbing wildlife, reducing waste, and - most pertinently for seagrass beds - how to ensure that anchoring and mooring damages as little of the green stuff as possible. She was a perfect guest for Chris as she immediately started talking about all things anchors. You’d never believe there was so much to talk about regards anchors, setting anchors, anchor weight, rope and chain length, ‘springiness’ of rope, but as Chris is a trained engineer, the conversation lasted some time… believe you me!

Hermit Crab in Seagrass

We boarded Allegra in Gosport near Portsmouth, and headed off to Osborne Bay on the northeast of the Isle of Wight in early September. Upon arrival we undertook a survey to see how many vessels of what type were anchored there. We got the opportunity to have a swim and see the rich seagrass in the bay close to shore. We also then had the opportunity of hearing - at considerable volume - some ballads from a great sound system aboard the vessel whilst tea was made. We left after about 4 hours having got a feel for the place and what practical things could be achieved before winter closed in by Chris, Allegra, and some ideas for surveys.

Subsequently, Chris has been back to the site on numerous occasions and undertaken video surveys and still photos using a Remote Operational Vehicle that he purchased for the project. He filmed the seabed inside and outside the known anchoring locations to ascertain the damage. That data is now with the University of Plymouth to be published as part of a Master of Research. It will inform Natural England’s recommendations for the management of this important habitat.

Seagrass

So - let’s embrace our ocean enthusiasts and citizen scientists on this day of wetland wonder. Let’s give them the space to develop their own ideas. After all, we ‘experts’ don’t always know best! Sometimes it’s our informed audiences and partners who do it best, and have the best ideas.

Here’s to saving the seagrass. It’s going to help fight against climate change. And - frankly - we need all the help we can get!

Click here to listen to an interview with yachtsman and MCS volunteer, Chris Cooling. Recorded aboard his yacht Allegra in November 2020 when anchored at St Mawes, Falmouth:

Click to see a clip of mooring impact on seagrass by Chris Cooling from St Mawes (November 2020).