KELP BEDS AND FORESTS - Credit Paul Naylor
Kelp can be found in shallower water around the coast of the UK. They are dependent on sunlight for survival and growth and are therefore restricted to areas of the seabed that sunlight is able to penetrate; in the UK kelp has been found to a depth of 45m. They establish on hard surfaces, often rocks of varying size, which they tangle their roots around.
What are they?
The anatomy of the plant very much resembles that of terrestrial plants with roots that anchor the plant to the seabed around or on rocks, the roots lead to the stipe that is the thin hard stalk of the plant, from here grows the fronds much like leaves in appearance and function. The fronds have air filled bladders which aid the plant in floating and allows the plant to reach the light. Unlike terrestrial plants nutrients are not absorbed in the roots but directly by the plant itself.
Where are they found?
The species of kelp varies depending on exposure on the coast. Very exposed coasts have high numbers of murlin Alaria esculenta; while on less exposed coasts furbelow Saccorihiza polyschides, tangle weed Laminaria digitata and cuvie Laminaria hyperborean; while sheltered coasts are dominated by sugar kelp Laminaria saccharina.
The UK has the most diverse community of kelp species compared to any other countries in the Europe. In total, we have 7 out of 14 species found across Europe. At present they can be found all around the coast of Britain with forest developing in areas with suitable grounds such as rock, boulder and cobble.
Why are they important?
Kelp forests hold the foundation for one of the most productive and dynamic ecosystems on Earth. The kelp provides a 3 dimensional habitat for a great diversity of species to live and feed from.
At the bottom; the structure of the holdfast forms a network of nooks and cracks ideal for small invertebrates such as worms and crustaceans to burrow into. The horizontal stipe is a platform for animals and other plants, raising them closer to the sunlight, while providing a food source and prevents smothering by silt on the seabed. The fronds support a range of colonial animals, like sponges and sea mats, and red seaweeds.
Kelp is also grazed upon by fish and other invertebrates such as the blue-ray limpet (Helcion pellucidum). The thick floating kelp provides protection for fish fry providing them with food and shelter. In turn they attract larger predators.
Kelp is the bottom of the food chain (primary producer), providing a food source for numerous species from tiny plankton to large fish and seals. Indirectly they provide a food source for smaller species that in turn are fed upon by larger species. As a result they are an important factor in the underwater foodweb.
When the kelp eventually dies, often after being torn from the seabed in strong storms, the decaying organic matter act as an important food source for bacteria and single-celled animals. Once this kelp reaches shore waders such as purple sandpipers and turnstones forage for small crustaceans and hatching larvae.
Are they threatened?
Kelp only grows in the cool temperate and polar region of the planet; the threat of global warming could alter the distribution of kelp, or potentially become too warm for it to survive. The effect of loosing kelp in our waters would cause for a ripple up affect on other species dependent upon kelp.
In addition, our kelp forests play a hugely important role in the carbon cycle of our planet, capturing 75% of the net carbon fixed annually in the sea. Our seas and sea life are quite literally our life source, helping to regulate oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, providing us with air to breathe.
What are The Wildlife Trusts doing to help?
Following the assent of the Marine & Coastal Access Act, four regional projects were established to identify potential Marine Conservation Zones within England.
The projects are stakeholder led and Wildlife Trust staff sit on all projects, at local, regional and a national level. These projects will ultimately put forward sites to protect special areas of the sea.
Additional work on Marine Protected Areas is also underway in Wales and Scotland, whilst in Northern Ireland we are still campaigning for Marine legislation with a commitment to establishing these areas.
What can I do to help?
Visit wildlifetrusts.org/livingseas to find out how you can help our marine conservation work in the UK.
Depending on where you live, local Wildlife Trust volunteers help out with everything from recording marine wildlife sightings to beach cleans and educational work. Visit our Living Seas pages online or contact your local Trust to find out more.