Seagrass – and the return of the oysters

“It always feels celebratory when we get the seagrass or the oysters into the sea because there's so much work leading up to it.” Naomi Arnold and Lyndsey Dodds from WWF explain the important work of the Restoration Forth project.

· Sustainability,Partnerships,Ecology

Seagrass is a wonderful thing. The only flowering plant to grow in marine environments, it provides a huge boost to both biodiversity and sustainability. A single hectare of the right species (there are around 60 seagrass species in total) can provide a thriving habitat for 80,000 fish and 100 million invertebrates. And as well as creating a welcoming environment for anything from anemones to seals, seagrass beds provide valuable nursery grounds for heavily-fished species such as cod and plaice. Healthy seagrass meadows are also a valuable ally in the climate crisis because they absorb carbon dioxide from the water through photosynthesis, storing it within the plants’ tissues and burying it in the seabed.

Excitingly, through the Restoration Forth project, plans are now afoot to restore around four hectares of seagrass to the Forth estuary coast by the end of 2024 – as well as 30,000 European flat oysters. Developing a new oyster reef in the estuary will provide another important habitat for fish, crabs, sea snails and sponges. And because oysters filter and improve water clarity, more light can penetrate through to the seabed, allowing plants such as seagrass to photosynthesise and grow.

The project, managed by WWF, gathered pace in the spring of last year with 25,000 seeds collected from Orkney successfully injected into the ground at the trial sites of Tyninghame Beach (East Lothian), Pettycur Bay (Fife) and Drum Sands (just north-west of Edinburgh). By the end of 2023, the project had restored one hectare of seagrass and deployed the first European flat oysters into the Firth of Forth in 100 years.

The Llŷn Peninsula
Restoration Forth is a complex initiative involving 11 project partners and numerous stakeholders. But it’s an initiative that WWF brings rich expertise to, having already begun a successful project in Wales called Seagrass Ocean Rescue. Working with the charity Project Seagrass and four other partners, 1.2m seagrass seeds have been collected from the village of Porthdinllaen to be planted off the Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynedd and Anglesey. The ultimate aim is to create 10 hectares of seagrass meadows by the end of 2026.

“Off the back of the work in Wales, we knew we had expertise we could bring to the Forth in terms of seagrass restoration,” says Lyndsey Dodds, the Marine Lead for WWF (pictured below). “The idea coalesced through work with various stakeholders in the Edinburgh area but we also felt we could expand it to include the restoration of oysters. Also, we have a strong focus in Wales on encouraging community engagement and involvement in the project, which is a very important part of Restoration Forth too.” You can see this when you visit the Restoration Forth website – there are hubs in Fife, Edinburgh and East Lothian that members of the public can get involved with, and a string of events where anyone interested can learn more, or roll up their sleeves and enjoy helping out.

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The post-pandemic shift towards virtual meetings creates another obstacle. “Getting people in the same room is a challenge these days,” says Naomi. “The online culture is so convenient but when we have all of the partners in the same room, conversations are much easier.”WWF’s experience in Wales has been invaluable in managing this partnership process, but the Forth brings its own challenges too. This is the first time something like this has happened in the Firth of Forth and we’ve learned a huge amount along the way,” says Naomi. “Obviously, it’s a really busy estuary, and highly industrialised, with a lot of stakeholders involved. So, for instance, there have even been challenges in finding out who the foreshore belongs to. We thought it would probably all be Crown Estate Scotland, but the three sites we're working on for seagrass are all privately owned. So making progress there has been a challenge, as has getting permissions from government departments to get the work going.

“It always feels celebratory when we get the seagrass or the oysters into the sea because there's so much work leading up to it in terms of logistics, lining everyone up and even the tide timetables.”

Native oyster beds
The first oysters (sourced from Little Loch Broom) were reintroduced to the Forth in September. Huge native oyster beds once provided an important source of food and livelihoods in the area, but the beds were wiped out by overfishing and industrial development. However, the intention of the scheme is not for the oysters to be served up at harbourside cafés.

“The oysters we are putting in are about two years old, so quite small,” says Naomi. “We anticipate that, if the conditions are right, they might start to spat between about five and 10 years old, but because this is the first time oysters have been reintroduced here, there is no data to back that up. And the main point here that this project is purely focused on a nature-based response to restoring biodiversity.

As things stand, Restoration Forth only has funding until the end of this year, by which point the aim is to have established four hectares of seagrass and 30,000 oysters in various sites along the Forth coast. Lyndsey and Naomi are therefore working concurrently on options for extended funding. If you think you might be able to help or if you’d like to get involved, they would be keen to hear from you.

Partners delivering Restoration Forth include WWF, Edinburgh Shoreline, Fife Coast & Countryside Trust, Heriot Watt University, Marine Conservation Society, Project Seagrass, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scottish Seabird Centre, The Ecology Centre and The Heart of Newhaven Community.

Restoration Forth is funded by Aviva, the ScottishPower Foundation, and the Moondance Foundation; and the project is also supported by the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund, through Scottish Marine Environmental Enhancement Fund (SMEEF) facilitated grants.

The ScottishPower Foundation announced its first multi-year award of £600,000 for Restoration Forth over three years from its Marine Biodiversity Fund on the eve of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.