OUR county is now host to a nationally pioneering new fisheries bylaw. The Sussex Nearshore Trawling exclusion bylaw is the first fisheries bylaw in the UK to consider climate change and carbon.

This week Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (Sussex IFCA) formally announced the new bylaw, which pushes trawling 4km away from the West Sussex Coast.

Why is this so important? As recently as the late 1980s the West Sussex near-shore area hosted a huge kelp forest, creating habitat for species from sharks to seahorses. Decades of trawling has been devastating. Bottom-towed trawling is a practice that repeatedly draws heavy fishing gear across the seabed. It is typically undertaken in the West Sussex near-shore area to catch flatfish like sole and plaice. 

Any seabed features in the course of the trawlers’ pass are inevitably damaged. The continual seabed disturbance by trawling has prevented the natural re-growth of kelp, which now exists in small patches and individuals. With the loss of kelp comes a loss of associated biodiversity and the destruction of the food chains that sustain wildlife in our seas.

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A bylaw to enable the kelp forests to regenerate

Sussex Wildlife Trust, as part of the Help Our Kelp Partnership, is determined to see kelp forests return to Sussex waters. In September 2019, Sussex IFCA led a public consultation to move trawling from the West Sussex near-shore. The bylaw encompasses 304 sqkm of the Sussex IFCA district all year round. It will protect critical seabed habitats, notably enabling the regeneration of the kelp forests. The #HelpOurKelp Partnership is Sussex Wildlife Trust, Blue Marine Foundation, Marine Conservation Society, Big Wave Productions and Dr Ian Hendy at the University of Portsmouth. It was established to galvanise public support and awareness of the bylaw, backed by almost 2,500 people. The bylaw is now in place. It is an amazing milestone for nature in Sussex.

Henri Brocklebank of Sussex Wildife Trust

Henri Brocklebank of Sussex Wildife Trust

What is kelp?

Kelps are a group of large brown seaweeds which can grow into “forests”. These are often compared to rainforests because of the abundance of animals and other seaweed they support. Grazing animals such as sea snails can be found on kelp, other seaweeds and sea firs attach to their stipes (stems), and a whole range of animals take shelter in or around the holdfast (the structures that anchor them to the seafloor).

Why is the regeneration of kelp important?

It would not only boost depleted marine wildlife but provide other benefits to the marine environment and communities.

Increased wildlife: Kelp forests are among the most productive and diverse ecosystems on the planet. Sussex kelp forests will provide vital nursery and feeding grounds for many species including cuttlefish, lobsters, crabs, sea bream and bass.

Carbon flows: The ocean is the largest carbon sink on the planet. Kelp exports carbon from coastal waters into deeper water where it gets stored in sediments. While it is not yet well understood how this would translate to the shallow waters of the English Channel, some kelp species grow extremely fast and can draw down carbon faster than terrestrial plants.   

Ocean acidity: A productive kelp ecosystem increases dissolved oxygen in our seas. This in turn reduces dissolved CO2 which reduces ocean acidity – one of the single biggest threats to life on earth.  

Wider marine habitat regeneration: Other sensitive, important habitats along the coastline will also benefit, including fragile and rare chalk reefs and other naturally forming reef structures such as mussel and oyster beds. These habitats shelter and feed a diversity of sealife. This will result in a much greater abundance and diversity of species, creating “spill-over” outside the trawler exclusion zone, benefiting fishermen.  

Food provision and sustainable fisheries: Kelp forests are nursery grounds for commercially important fish and shellfish, including bass and lobsters. A regenerated kelp ecosystem would help to maintain the populations of these species and support the Sussex fishing industry. In Lyme Bay in Dorset where trawling has been excluded, research showed a 4.5-fold increase in lobsters in just five years from implementation of the exclusion.

Natural coastal defence: Kelp forests alter the motion of the water in coastal areas and provide a “buffer” against storm surges simply by damping the energy of breaking waves, protecting the coast from erosion and damage from storm.  

Tourism and recreation: Activities including angling and scuba-diving need a healthy ecosystem. Restoration of habitats could encourage people into the area and increase tourism-associated revenue.