Priory Bay Seagrasses at significant risk

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The Isle of Wight is famous for its beautiful landscapes from pastoral fields, to chocolate box villages and rugged coastlines. In fact, about half of the island is protected as part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This AONB classification is made up of 5 parcels of land totalling 186km2 each with a distinctly different landscape included. Whilst the Island is pretty famous for its landscapes we don’t often consider the wealth of the surrounding seas as part of this. There are just as many breath taking cliffs, valleys, reefs and sediment lurking just below the surface. The recent expansion of the UK’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) will include three new areas off the coast of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. One of these will be located off the Needles, another will be located at the Offshore Overfalls just to the south east of the Island.

However, that’s not what I’m going to discuss today. It’s interesting but it’s the results of a study of seagrass beds across the UK that is potentially more interesting. The report, carried out by Benjamin Jones and Richard Unsworth of Cardiff and Swansea universities, concluded that historically the UK has lost at least 50% of its seagrass beds with others at risk from pollution and boating.

Nitrogen pollution in the form of agricultural runoff is a particularly important threat with the resulting algal blooms stopping light from reaching the seagrass beds, essentially suffocating them. In the UK tissue nitrogen levels are 75% above the global average showing a significant level of nitrogen pollution. Similarly, increasing turbidity (that being suspended sediments) perform the same threat by blocking sunlight. But why are seagrasses important? It’s a fair question. For our fishing industry, which I consider a part of the Islands heritage and a determinant of our local identity as islanders, seagrass beds provide important nursery grounds for commercial fish stocks allowing juvenile fish to reach adulthood in relative safety.

So how do we protect the seagrass beds at Priory Bay? It won’t be easy to tackle the major sources of the pollution that poses a threat to Priory Bay as it is difficult to alleviate runoff and appease farmers. However, increasing public awareness and interest in the issue will increase the pressure on government to consider the issue seriously. The development of a potential revenue stream from tourism, in the form of snorkeling safaris, could go far in terms of local engagement as economic loss is always a motivator in environmental decision making. There are already, as of 2014, two bylaws in place that make bottom towed fishing gear and bait collection in Priory Bay illegal and this has certainly alleviated the threat from towed gear to the bed stability.

If you want to learn more please go to Project Seagrass a charity for seagrass conservation

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