A fictional story written in response to new legislation which prohibits trawling close inshore along a section of the coast in southern England.
I pull on my wetsuit, always a slightly awkward manoeuvre, no matter how many times I’ve done this. The sun is shining its warmth down on me but I know that the sea will be cold. There are a few other people on the beach; a lady walking her dog, a group of teenagers playing volleyball, a family sat on a picnic blanket, but a lot of people have already gone home for the evening.
I walk over the shingle, down to the water’s edge. The calm green-blue sea laps lazily at the shore. I wade out a few steps before tugging on my fins over my bare feet and pulling my mask and snorkel over my face. I can’t wait to see what's underwater, so I dive forwards, mindful of the shallow depth. I smile around the snorkel in my mouth, my breath rasping through the tube.
It is a different world down here, a secret place that you don’t know about, can’t see, until you’re here, immersed in it. I kick my legs, my fins amplifying the movement as I glide through the water. I'm only a stone’s throw off the beach and already I am transported into a realm which made me feel like an intrepid explorer.
The water is murky. This is the south coast of England, after all, not some destination from a tropical holiday brochure. It’s to do with the nature of the sediments here, the mud of the harbours and the sand along the coast and the storms and the nutrients which feed all the tiny plankton. It’s those microscopic creatures which form the base of the oceanic food chain, right up to the biggest whales. Even here, in the English Channel, the history books reveal the pilot whales, angel sharks, the huge tuna, the enormous plaice which used to inhabit these waters.
A few hundred metres out from the beach and the shingle is interrupted by boulders, cobbles and up-thrusting ragged lines of the underlying rock. These hard structures have been colonised by a mosaic of algae, bright reds and greens, as well as strange, immobile creatures.
I draw in a breath and dive down.
I see a cluster of tiny orange disks with creamy stars in the middle; colonial ascidians. In a crevice, I spot a blue mussel, the two halves of its shell agape as it feeds. I float back up towards the surface, my lungs straining for air, a shoal of black and white striped pouting darting around me.
I pop up to the surface to grab another breath and dive back down. The longer I look at the reef, the more creatures I see; such complex diversity, so many fragile communities.
It’s on my fourth dive that I see the kelp plant. It is no longer than a handspan, its tapered blade waving in the gentle current. It is a rich chestnut brown in the waning evening light. It clings to the reef with a holdfast; a tangled twist of roots.
Historically – actually not too long ago – this whole area was covered in kelp. A kelp forest, they called it, as the dense fronds grew like slender trees, creating habitat for hundreds of species. The forest disappeared a few decades ago due to a combination of factors. Storm damage, climate change, poor water quality and trawling were all implicated. Now, though, changes in the local fishing laws have given the kelp a chance at recovery.
This is the first frond of kelp that I’ve found and my heart lifts with joy to see it.
I float on the surface, head down, looking into an alien world. The little piece of kelp fills me with hope. Hope that this whole area can undergo a sort of underwater rewilding, that with the regrowth of the kelp, will come a return of the species previously confined to the history books. Kelp can grow several centimetres a day and produce millions of offspring. If storms damage its blade, it can regrow from its holdfast.
As I turn back towards the beach, I hold fast to the image of that new kelp plant, growing in the place of its ancestors, growing into a new, wilder future.
Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) have recently announced new legislation which restricts trawling activity close inshore along the Sussex coast, protecting diverse habitats and supporting low impact fishers.
Further information from Sussex Wildlife Trust: https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/helpourkelp