December 2021 – Blue Carbon coring in Loch Craignish, Argyll, Scotland.

 

The ReSOW UK project brings together teams from the National Oceanography Centre, Swansea University and the University of Stirling.  Project partners include the Marine Management Organisation, Natural Resources Wales, the Environment Agency, the Global Oceans Accounts Partnership, Natural England and the Coastal Communities Network, Scotland.

Link through to the SMMR UK project website here.

You can also read this blog over on our UK Restoration website here where you will also find more information on the restoration of seagrass beds in the UK.

 

Loch Craignish, Argyll, Scotland.

And so it begins…

Our SMMR funded ReSOW UK project is officially underway, but before we launch into our first update, let’s just take a moment to revisit the context and reasons as to why we have started our project journey by taking Blue Carbon cores (both inside and outside of seagrass meadows) in Loch Craignish.

The UK Government has recognised the need for Nature Based Solutions to climate change to form a significant component of the UKs target of reaching Net Zero emissions by 2050 and seagrass meadows globally are known to create a highly efficient and long-term store of carbon in their marine sediments. However, is this also true of UK seagrass meadows? Do Zostera marina and Zostera noltii also provide this ecosystem service to the same degree? At present the scientific jury’s out, we simply need more data! Therefore one aspect of Restoration of Seagrass for Ocean Wealth (ReSOW UK) is exploring the efficiency of seagrass meadows at storing and sequestering carbon in the UK context, and providing an opportunity for their restoration to become a key contributor to these solutions.

However, ReSOW UK is not just about the carbon! There are a number of ‘ecosystem services’ that seagrass meadows are known to provide globally, and for which we need better evidence in the UK context. Another relevant example of this is that we know in the global context that seagrass meadows are an important nursery habitat for many fish species. They will therefore almost certainly have an important role to play in supporting our UK fisheries – but to what extent? In a time of changing management of our UK fisheries, the restoration and recovery of the nation’s seagrass meadows provides an opportunity to improve support for fisheries productivity through enhanced fish nursery habitat, particularly for commercially important fish species.

There’s definitely a reason why across the pond seagrass meadows are recognized as Essential Fish Habitat!

As we document our ReSOW UK journey we hope to show how interdisciplinary research and science-policy collaboration is key to ensuring sustainable seas for future generations. The Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (SMMR) Strategic Priorities Fund is a £12.4m initiative dedicated to funding marine research to address critical gaps in understanding that have been identified by UK policy makers. The point of difference here though is that the SMMR is jointly delivered by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and therefore will support marine management tools and policy interventions, based on values, sustainability, and socio-economic benefits.

That’s the context, so let’s dive into the update!

From the Friday 3rd December until Monday 6th December the community association of CROMACH (through their charity ‘Seawilding’) hosted us on the shores of Loch Craignish. Seawilding are undertaking both native oyster and seagrass meadow restoration in the Loch, and so for ReSOW UK this site provides a perfect case study for baselining the benefits of habitat restoration (You can watch a recent film showcasing their work here).

Our teams task for the weekend (the dates were organised around the best low-tides) was to take a series of Blue Carbon cores from both within, and out with the existing seagrass meadows. The cores taken from within the seagrass meadows, will provide us with site specific data relating to the amount of carbon in the seagrass sediments, and the cores taken from outside the seagrass meadows will provide the data on the background presence of carbon in the loch sediments and therefore provide a baseline for comparison. This kind of work is taken place by research groups across the country and so hopefully over the next few years we’ll have a lot more data in this space.

A drone flight conducted earlier this summer (for a NatureScot Biodiversity Challenge Fund project) enabled the creation of this orthomosaic which shows the seagrass meadow in Bàgh Dun Mhuilig (Dunvulig Bay), Loch Craignish. Blue Carbon cores were taken both inside and outside of this meadow during this fieldwork trip.

However, the real opportunity presented by Seawilding’s work at this site is the opportunity to take carbon cores in bare sediments where seagrass meadows are being restored. This will provide some baseline data that can be revisited in 10+ years’ time, further coring at this point will then enable us to understand a bit more about the rate at which new carbon is being sequestered into the sediments by the restoration of this new meadow – essentially a before and after comparison. If you look at the orthomosaic above, cores were taken in a transect running from the shallow side of the meadow to the deep along a depth gradient. Additional cores were also taken just to the north of the meadow where the meadow is being extended through active restoration trials. This work is being funded by NatureScot through their Nature Restoration Fund – ‘Supporting the restoration of marine natural capital using seagrass through baseline study of sediments prior to restoration.’

Whilst the core focus of our weekends work was the carbon, this was also a wonderful opportunity to facilitate the connection of researchers working in this space, connections and social networks that will hopefully contribute to the vision of the SMMR Network (SMMR-Net).

The Blue Carbon coring was being led by Aisling Collins a PhD student from Swansea University. Aislings research project aims to understand through surveying and experimentation the interactions that seagrass in the UK has with greenhouse gases and how different environmental parameters, habitat types, and anthropogenic disturbances can affect this. Aisling was being supported in the field by myself, the Seawilding team and a Project Seagrass ‘Year In Industry’ placement student Lowri O’Neill. The cores are now being sent down to Southampton for processing by an expert team at the British Ocean Sediment Core Research Facility (BOSCORF). Here the cores are split and some non-invasive analysis is conducted before the cores are passed onto the National Oceanography Centre for analysis of carbon content, matter provenance, iron dating, and grain size analysis.

The Welsh team were joined in the field by Issy Key from the University of Edinburgh who has just started her PhD looking at “Scottish seagrass in a changing ocean; their health, role and restoration potential” and by Ethan Ross from the University of Aberdeen who has also just started his PhD looking at “Establishing Marine Biodiversity Baselines for Blue Carbon Habitats”. Ethan’s focus system is seagrass, and he is using novel eDNA techniques that are also being pioneered by Dr Alex Thompson and Alasdair O’Dell at SAMS.

Collaboration is key when it comes to solving complex challenges and taking this early opportunity to start to build the SMMR Network is essential. If you need evidence of what’s possible when we all pull together and collaborate then just look at what MASTS has been able to achieve since its inception, and so I’m pleased to report that the SMMR programme is already helping to forge novel partnerships and facilitate collaboration across different UK nations, disciplines and sectors – a positive first step forward for UK marine science!

Richard Lilley

Author Richard Lilley

RJ's a founding director of Project Seagrass and is currently working on an International Climate Initiative project: 'Conservation of biodiversity, seagrass ecosystems and their services – safeguarding food security and resilience in vulnerable coastal communities in a changing climate'

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