The Ocean Conservation Trust planted the first seeds in the seagrass cultivation laboratory, at the largest aquarium in the UK, as part of a major £2.5 million habitat restoration project funded by EU LIFE and led by Natural England.
The seagrass lab is the first of its kind in the world and the seed sowing marks an important milestone in the three-year LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES habitat restoration project.
As part of the project, the Ocean Conservation Trust will be cultivating up to 360,000 plants a year in the new laboratory, to help restore up to eight hectares of lost seagrass meadows. A germination rate of around 25% is expected within the test batch over the next 50 days, resulting in around 15,000 Zostera Marina plants that will remain in the National Marine Aquarium's public seagrass exhibit until next spring.
Once the cultivation process has proven successful, three further rounds of planting will take place, with volunteers set to be recruited to help with the planting of around 600,000 seeds in each. The plants will help to restore over eight hectares of lost seagrass meadows within Special Areas of Conservation in waters around the UK.
The laboratory is now open for public viewing at the National Marine Aquarium, with visitors having the opportunity to see the plant cultivation in action whilst learning more about the importance of seagrass. The Ocean Conservation Trust is also delivering the educational element to the programme within schools around the South West, alongside project partner, the Marine Conservation Society.
As well as restoring huge areas of lost habitats, the LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES project aims to protect vital seagrass meadows located in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) around the UK's coasts by providing advanced mooring systems, voluntary boating codes, targeted training.
Mark Parry, Seagrass Ecologist and Project Manager at the Ocean Conservation Trust, said: "We're delighted to have reached this next important stage in what is an incredibly significant project in the conservation and regeneration of the UK's seagrass meadows.
"Seagrass meadows have become increasingly under threat in recent years. Seagrass meadows are one of the most ecologically important habitats in the UK, supporting our fisheries and helping to prevent coastal erosion, as well as absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, so looking after them is not just in the interests of the Ocean, but ours, too."
Seagrass is one of the Ocean's most important habitats, providing a nursery ground for many commercial fish stocks such as cod, plaice and pollock and acting as a haven for many marine animals including rare seahorses, stalked jellyfish, and rare seaweeds. It also stabilises sediments and prevents coastal erosion, as well as having the capacity to absorb at least as much carbon per hectare as UK forests – making it an important ally in the fight against climate change. But today, seagrass is considered critically endangered and is an EU Red Listed habitat due to the damage regularly caused to the slow-growing beds from boaters, walkers and fishermen. The meadows are threatened by anchoring, mooring and launching of recreational boats, as well as trampling from walkers and bait collectors.