Interest in rewilding the land has boomed in recent years, especially after the success of the rewilded Knepp Estate in England. But what about rewilding the sea? Esther Brooker tells us about her research on marine rewilding.
In the UK, the Knepp Estate has sought to lead the way on rewilding, turning an intensively farmed area over to nature. What does rewilding look like in the ocean? The marine environment is much less accessible, is highly dynamic and connected in ways that we don’t fully understand. We also don’t have solid evidence about past habitats and species distributions in the sea, so it is less clear what baseline we are trying to return to.
Despite these differences, there are some broad rewilding principles we can take from our experience on the land and apply to the marine world.
What is marine rewilding?
My PhD is exploring what we mean by ‘rewilding the sea’. I have explored far beyond the scientific literature (which is limited) to consider a broad range of information sources that describe what people think marine rewilding should be.
Key principles of rewilding include establishing core areas for natural regeneration that are connected to each other and promote the recovery of predators and other keystone species (species that have a strong influence on the function of the ecosystem). My research suggests that the same principles apply on land and in the sea, but the approaches to achieve them vary and the challenges are different.
Why do we need it?
Industrialised fishing methods that scour the seabed and overfishing have caused major changes to ecosystems. Global populations of apex predators, such as sharks, have reduced by about 90% in the last 100 years, and many whale populations are still recovering since whaling was largely banned in the 1980s. The impacts of climate change, such as warming seas and increasing acidity, also mean that the ecological goalposts are shifting.
We know that protecting key species alone is not enough to rewild the environment. In the UK, we have legislation that protects many marine mammal species from direct harm, but if their prey species are overfished, they’re not able to truly recover.
The goal of rewilding is to help ecosystems to regenerate to the point where they are self-sustaining, so they can function and thrive to the benefit of biodiversity, including humans. In some cases, we can achieve this through traditional conservation practices, such as protected areas giving habitats space to recover by preventing further damage and exploitation. In other cases, we might require practical interventions to help restore the habitat that an ecosystem needs to function, such as planting seagrass or transplanting corals.
Projects making waves
The majority of marine conservation projects lack either the scale or the objectives to be classed as rewilding, but there are many emerging initiatives that are creating waves in this field.
The Galapagos has taken a combination of approaches to large-scale marine conservation, from expanding the Galapagos Marine Reserve to establishing a fishing ban along a key ocean corridor so that migratory species can pass safely. The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor which connects the Marine Protected Areas around Galapagos, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia is a great example of cross-government collaboration recognising the dynamic connectivity of our ocean.
In the UK, there are an increasing number of initiatives being driven at a local and national level that are seeking to rewild our seas. Seawilding is a pioneering, community-led organisation in Scotland restoring native oyster and seagrass beds in Loch Craignish. Though this initiative is relatively small scale, early results appear to be positive. The project is also notable for its consideration of how the local community can benefit socially and financially from successfully restored habitats.
A large-scale project to recover depleted kelp beds in Sussex is showing promising signs of success, as well as contributing to the UK’s blue carbon (carbon capture by marine ecosystems). A community in the Isle of Arran have successfully established a marine ‘no-take zone’, where the removal of commercial fishing has resulted in significant recovery of habitats and species in just 10 years. White-tailed sea eagles have also enjoyed an incredible come-back from local extinction in Scottish coastal areas, thanks to a species reintroduction and conservation programme started in the 1970s.
There is a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the process of being implemented in UK seas, designed to protect declining species and habitats. However, there are still gaps in the MPA network, and many are ‘paper parks’ existing simply as lines on a map. But if well managed, MPAs have the potential to contribute significantly to a rewilded seascape.
A way forward
What’s becoming clear from my research is that marine rewilding is not just about wildlife and habitats; it is essential to recognise the role of humans as part of the ecosystem. Our seas are publicly owned and managed for public good, so everyone should have a say on how they are managed.
Rewilding the sea must be approached in a way that allows the sustainable continuation of human activities within a wilder marine environment. It must also be inclusive, particularly as people are increasingly aware of the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on their lives, and some directly depend on the sea for their livelihoods.
Marine activities being restricted or prohibited to allow for environmental restoration can lead to trade-offs or conflict. But this doesn’t need to be the case. Here are some of the actions I think we need to take:
◾ Promote understanding and awareness of marine rewilding, to help support better collaboration and inclusivity in rewilding action;
◾ Improve sustainability of marine industries, removing pressures and changing practices where needed, to ensure that marine ecosystems are able to regenerate while continuing to provide the benefits that society needs;
◾ Improve planning and governance, promoting more joined-up decision-making by government and supporting greater involvement in decision-making at a local level
Our seas are dynamic and complex, completely connected as one ocean, which makes it even more important to consider their protection in a holistic way. As my research progresses, I will analyse how governance systems support or interact with marine rewilding, as well as exploring social values related to marine rewilding within different communities.
Esther Brooker is a Marine Policy and Engagement Officer at Scottish Environment LINK and researcher at the University of Hull. Her PhD on ‘Rewilding the Sea: perceptions, values and challenges’ is part of the REWILD PhD Cluster at the University of Hull.