a journey to the Isle of Wight to restore a priceless ecosystem

a journey to the Isle of Wight to restore a priceless ecosystem

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Kevin smiles from ear to ear at the sight of a common periwinkle. This pretty and striped mollusk clinging to a sandstone where the Solent erodes the peach sands of the beach at St. Like most of our party of 12, Kevin signed up for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s Coastal Survey Volunteer Day, to ease his climate anxiety.

“It feels good to be doing something for our coastal environment instead of sitting at home worrying about ecosystem collapse,” he says; The last time he dabbled in rock pools was as a kid in the 1970s.

Kevin and I stand side by side in a rock pool on the Isle of Wight, down to our ankle-high wellies, marveling at the marine life around our feet. There are mollusks of all sizes and meter-long blond bladderwrack; There are the peculiar, potato-shaped organisms known as sea squirts, and further into the intertidal zone, where green shoreline algae give way to hues of gold and red, today’s holy grail: a group of flowering seaweeds that represent one of our planet’s brightest hopes, when it comes to combating climate change.

“Seagrasses are the unsung heroes of marine ecosystems,” says Emily Stroud, a marine biologist leading today’s Isle of Wight tidal survey. “They absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the surrounding seawater, and their long leaves slow the flow of water, causing carbon to settle on the seafloor, where it is then buried. These little stars also protect us from coastal erosion.”

It is common for seaweeds to be removed to make a beach look more postcard-perfect

Leanne Cullen Unsworth

Unfortunately, in most global contexts, these hardworking marine flora—which include ribbon-like seagrass, flatfronted enhalus grass, and Mediterranean species like Neptunegrass—are on the decline. More than 90% of Britain’s seagrass has been lost, with much of this destruction occurring in the 20th century when poor water quality caused by rapid industrialization led to a wasting disease that devastated our native meadows. Sediment and turbidity have played their part, as has physical damage from anchors and fishing nets, commercial algae production, and the tourism industry — particularly in the Pacific and Southeast Asia — where the desire for pristine-looking beaches has led to the removal of seaweed.

From Stroud’s point of view, seagrasses are a prime example of the wonders our shores hold if we are willing to protect these precious habitats rather than deface them for our narrow view of what defines a beachside idyll.

“It’s common for seagrasses to be removed to make a beach look more postcard-perfect,” said Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, founder of Project Seagrass. In partnership with the Wildlife Trust, Project Seagrass is working to raise awareness of this underappreciated habitat, while pilot projects on the Isle of Wight and Pembrokeshire are investigating how best to allow Britain’s eroded tidal plantations to grow back.

A male cuckoo wrasse.

A male cuckoo wrasse. Photo: Johan Furusjo/Alamy

In 2021, the Wildlife Trust undertook its first deployment of 1,025 mixed seagrass seed bombs in the mud flats at Langstone Harbor on the Isle of Wight. they will mature into adult seaweeds this summer.

In addition to tracking the presence and health of Solent seagrasses, we are here today to monitor tidewater and algal species. Data from the Trust’s voluntary surveys, along with data from the Wildlife Trust’s Shoresearch programme, is being used by government adviser Natural England to monitor the effects of global warming. During a 2020 survey, the team spotted the bright pink eggs of a brooding lumpfish — a pink-snouted sea slug more common on the California coast. Brightly colored European and cuckoo wrasse have been recorded at Keyhaven in Hampshire.

“There are some species that we look out for,” says Stroud, “since they are indicators of climate change, such as peacock tail algae. We are on the eastern limit for this rare species here, so if its distribution moves further north, we can assume that something serious is afoot with sea temperatures.”

Sarah, her fellow sea volunteer, wants to start a weekend rock pooling school for Isle of Wight children and is keen to learn about her brittle stars from her bryozoans. “It’s not quite swimming trunks and sunglasses,” she laughs.

We peek under rocks as seagulls caw all around us and kitesurfers curve through a bay bathed in spring sunshine. “Look,” she says, her camera trained on a cobalt-cobalt rock pool reflecting the blue sky above. While Kevin carries the clipboard on which he records our living discoveries, Sarah carefully picks up a green shore crab that has the rounder belly of a woman and wriggles her shapely legs around her fingers. “Pretty, isn’t it?” Sarah says in awe.

We don’t have the risk assessment to turn you into mermaids

Today’s Navy volunteers are a mixed bunch: locals like Sarah and Kevin, but also mainland visitors like me. Stroud tells me that in the summer they see more mainlanders combining a sea volunteer trip with a trip to the pretty halls of Queen Victoria’s eventual retreat, Osborne House, or the island’s other eco-attractions, including Tapnell Farm, where I remain.

Tapnell, a former dairy farm in the west of the island, is one of Britain’s few energy positive family resorts. It sends enough power back to the grid to power 100 homes each year, on a campus with eco-pods made from natural materials fed with water from a borehole, a low-waste restaurant and an animal rescue center home to Vietnamese wallabies pot-bellied pigs and meerkats.

Related: My eagle-eyed winter hike around the Isle of Wight

In St. Helens, as the sun sets over the Solent, it’s time for this group of budding naval champions to retire before the tide comes in. “We don’t have the risk assessment to turn you into mermaids!” shouts our leader over 12 heads hanging curiously over rock pools like spring daffodils.

“Did you know that the teeth of the common limpet are the strongest natural material ever found on earth?” asks Stroud, gesturing with a green-frond seaweed that has uprooted in the intertidal zone. “They are stronger than diamonds: isn’t that great?”

And with that we paddle back over the rock pools in our rubber boots, with a feel-good glow that beats any beach tan.

• The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust Seagrass Survey Volunteer Days are free and take place at various locations. Accommodation was provided by Tapnell Farm, whose four-person pod cost from £112 one night. Ferry transport was provided by Wightlink, which has a new low-carbon hybrid vessel, Victoria Isle of Wight, from Portsmouth to fishbourne, Returns from £26.80 (on foot or by bike).

Three more beach savers

Rubbish picking up on the beach, Cornwall
Plastic waste is the scourge of many coastal areas, affecting water quality and suffocating wildlife. From the secluded coves of Polperro to the sweeping sandy beaches of Penzance, Clean Cornwall organizes regular small cleanups across the county for everyone to take part. cleancornwall.org

Seagrass Plantation, Pembrokeshire
Project Seagrass’ first large-scale project, Seagrass Ocean Rescue, is restoring a vast seagrass meadow in Dale, West Wales, with seedlings being grown from seeds collected along the UK coast. Find volunteer opportunities on the Facebook group volunteer page. facebook.com

Seaweed search, Scottish coast
The Scottish coast is home to some of the world’s largest CO2 fields2-Store seaweed. In partnership with the Natural History Museum, the Big Seaweed Search volunteer program is helping to map the distribution of 14 important species of algae to preserve their health and future ocean diversity. Register for free, download your admission form and find information on the mcsuk.org pages

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