Blue pioneers: Leading the way in seascape restoration

Posted: 3rd November 2023

Photo: Louise MacCallum

Following the announcement of a generous $72 million gift from the Arcadia Fund to support a third phase of restoration projects, we explore the importance of restoring the marine and coastal environment. The newly renamed Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme will be dedicating $30 million of this funding towards seascape restoration.

“Maybe I’m a bit biased”, begins Louise MacCallum, manager of the Solent Seascape Project. “I’ve lived and breathed the marine environment my whole career and whole life”. Louise has worked in marine conservation around the world but has been focussed on the shores of the Solent, a strait of water between the south coast of England and the Isle of Wight, for the past twenty years. The project launched at the end of 2022 as part of the second phase of the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme.  

When Louise saw the job posting for her current role, she thought it seemed like it was written just for her. “At any party, I have the best job in the room without question” she enthuses.

It joins the ELSP’s first seascape restoration project: Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya. This project, led by Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (the Mediterranean Conservation Society) has been supported by the ELSP since 2019 to restore Türkiye’s Turquoise Coast.  Akdeniz Koruma Derneği was established by Zafer Kizilkaya in 2012 when it began working to protect Gökova Bay through the legislation and enforcement of protected areas. “We managed to establish fully and highly protected areas in the bay, alongside creating a marine rangers programme for enforcement, which is the most important thing in any marine protected area. This was very successful so in 2019 with support from the ELSP we began to scale up to other areas” says Zafer.  

Zafer has a background in engineering but always wanted to be a biologist. He completed a masters in coastal zone management and then started his marine conservation career working for a research and conservation project in Indonesia. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

These marine restoration projects supported by the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme are doing something new. “Marine restoration is in its infancy, in a lot of ways we’re very much pioneering and we are learning lots of lessons and coming across some barriers as we go along the way” explains Louise. This is why the project’s monitoring programme is so important. “We’ll be able to take this knowledge we are collecting forward so that people in the future who are doing this kind of restoration can learn from our triumphs but can equally learn from our mistakes. We’ll create a blueprint”. This experience being generated by ELSP grantees is invaluable to contributing to the knowledge base for seascape restoration practitioners.  

This pioneering spirit has generated some out of the box thinking. The Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya project has implemented ideas ranging from marketing invasive species of fish as exciting new food items, to working with TUI, a leading global travel company, to educate tourists on sustainable travel. Interventions are already proving successful: project staff have recorded an increase in biomass, decrease in invasive species, and a serious increase in the revenues of the small-scale fishing community.   

Invasive lionfish can be cooked and marketed in a variety of different ways. AKD have even involved celebrity chefs in their campaign to present invasive species as new menu items. Photo: AKD.

“The marine environment has an amazing capacity to regenerate itself if you take away the anthropogenic pressures” says Louise. But the Solent Seascape Project is going beyond preventing the issues causing damage: they are actively restoring lost and damaged habitats. “We’re planting seagrass meadows; we’re building shingle islands for seabirds to nest on; we’re creating oyster reefs; we’re creating saltmarsh; and it’s that active kind of physical restoration which is very new”.   

Restoring on this large scale is particularly important for seascapes. “The way that the marine ecosystem works is that you need connectivity between lots of different kinds of habitats for marine species to survive. This is similar in terrestrial habitats, but the difference in marine habitats is that they are constantly inside a body of water which acts as a transportation mechanism. This carries things like seeds, nutrients, and larvae all around the ecosystem. The creatures that live in marine environments also tend not to be localised: they fly or swim over enormous distances” explains Louise.  

“The marine ecosystem gives us very quick responses to restoration and protection. The reason we saw this in Gökova Bay was that we selected the fully protected areas very carefully. They were all spawning and nursery grounds, so allowed fish to spawn and grow without any threat” says Zafer. “Marine environments have no borders, so once the fishes have spawned the currents carry the eggs from place to place, perhaps out of the project area” he adds.  

Thinking big is a key component of any seascape restoration project. Photo: Matt Jarvis.

The need for large-scale, joined up thinking extends beyond the marine environment to the coast and even the entire water basin. “Two years ago, we had devastating forest fires just inland of the Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya project area and decided to monitor the impact on the water” recalls Zafer. “The water in the sea and rivers became significantly more acidic due to the fires. In the future we’d like to extend our restoration inland throughout the water basin, because whatever impacts the terrestrial environment inevitably ends up in the water”.  

The critical importance of large-scale landscape and seascape restoration is where the newly renamed Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme comes in. The programme is currently supporting a portfolio of 13 active landscape and seascape restoration projects across Europe. By September 2022, the projects were delivering 153,000 hectares of restoration, achieved new protection status for 160,000 hectares of land and sea, and had secured $28 million in co-funding for restoration. The programme has been gifted $72 million by the Arcadia Fund to support a third phase of restoration projects, which includes over $30 million dedicated specifically to efforts to restore Europe’s seas. 

Interventions and funding like this are sorely and urgently needed. Coastal regions are some of the most altered and populous landscapes in the world, supporting over a third of the world’s population. The Solent is one of the busiest waterways in the UK with 79,000 annual shipping movements, a quarter of coastal marina berths in England, a major naval base, and a surrounding population of 1.25 million people. The area from Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya is a major tourism hub with around 250,000 residents in winter and 1.5 million inhabitants in the summer months.  

As well as rare species and habitats, the Solent area is home to 1.25 million people. Photo: Luke Helmer.

We depend on marine and coastal environments for the global economy, food security, biodiversity, nutrient cycling, jobs, and our culture and identity, as well as adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change through coastal protection and increased carbon sequestration. The oceans and coastal habitats absorb 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions and capture 90 percent of the excess heat generated by these emissions, meaning that their health is integral to climate change mitigation. “The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet and it’s this huge, amazing ecosystem filled with the most amazing biodiversity, which generates the most amazing ecosystem services for people. More than half the oxygen you breathe is generated by the sea” marvels Louise. “This is fairly fundamental for our survival”, she adds drily.  

Under the surface of our seas, degradation is happening at an alarming rate. Whilst on land we can clearly see the felling of forests, the damming of rivers, and the razing of meadows, in the case of our seas, what is out of sight is often out of mind. 

The current pressures placed on these fragile environments are affecting their ability to provide the valuable ecosystem services that we require. Our seas are suffering from pollution, biodiversity loss, seabed damage, overfishing, underwater noise, ocean warming, acidification, and spread of invasive species. In the European Union, 46% of coastal waters suffer from eutrophication, a process that causes excessive plant and algae growth leading to oxygen depletion, and 79% of the coastal seabed is disturbed due to bottom trawling. Restoration can start to rebuild some of these services and create a healthy and functioning ecosystem to benefit both people and nature.  

The sea’s surface hides lost and degraded habitats. Photo: Fauna & Flora.

Restoring biological function can also help to restore and conserve cultural practices and traditions. Türkiye’s Turquoise Coast has already lost the ancient practice of sponge diving. “In the 1990s, sponge diving was one of the major livelihoods in Gökova Bay, but in 1996 a disease came from the Red Sea and killed all the commercial sponges, and since then sponge collecting has been forbidden. We lost 3000 years’ worth of tradition, livelihoods, lifestyle, and the amazing stories that came with it” says Zafer. Without intervention, small scale fisheries could be going the same way over the next two decades. “There are more than 15,000 small scale fishers in Türkiye, and they’re losing their entire livelihoods. In twenty years, there will be no small-scale fishers” explains Zafer. Interventions from the project are already bolstering the fish stocks in the area, which in turn protects the traditions and livelihoods of local people. 

With pioneers like Louise MacCallum and Zafer Kizilkaya at the helm, these visionary projects are reshaping the narrative of marine conservation and proving that the path to healing our seas lies in innovation, dedication, and funding. These stories of resilience and recovery, of vibrant biodiversity and colourful traditions remind us that the restoration of our seascapes is an achievable reality.  

Article by Iona Haines. To read more about the Solent Seascape Project and the Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya project, visit their project pages. 

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