Credit: James FJ Rooney

Scottish coastal communities stand up against plans to dredge seaweed forests

Local communities are sounding the alarm about a company’s plans to mechanically dredge wild kelp on Scotland’s west coast.

Kelp – a large brown algae seaweed that grows in ‘forests’ on the seabed – is crucial for fighting climate change as it soaks up large amounts of carbon.

But Scottish alginate company Marine Biopolymer wants to dredge up to 34,000 tonnes of kelp a year by using a method that would strip it out entirely from the roots (or ‘holdfast’), leaving it with at best a moderate chance of recovery.

When the company submitted a scoping report on the potential environmental impacts of their plans to Marine Scotland this summer, 21 organisations and over 2350 members of the public voiced their concerns in the public consultation that followed.

Many of the responses warn that kelp dredging – which is currently not allowed in Scotland – is extremely environmentally destructive and can result in coastal erosion and disruption to marine biodiversity as kelp provide a habitat for marine organisms. Local people fear that to allow kelp dredging could open the door to an expanding industry that would have huge detrimental impacts on coastal businesses, particularly tourism.

In their response to the report, Scottish Environment Link, a member of the European Environmental Bureau, said:

Kelp habitats provide important foraging sites for large marine predators, such as otters, seals and seabirds, and any damage to these habitats could impact their health, distribution and behaviour.”

Scottish Environment link’s statement continued: “Recent footage of basking sharks swimming and gathering in and around kelp beds emphasises the broad range of marine species that utilise this habitat.

142 Scottish businesses that rely on a healthy coastal environment have signed a letter to Scottish Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham calling for the Scottish Government to ensure that no licences are granted for kelp stripping where the plant would not grow back.

And after over 16,000 people signed a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for a ban on wild kelp dredging, on 18 September the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform committee adopted an amendment that states harvesting should only be allowed where the plant can recover, effectively ruling out dredging.

The whole Scottish Parliament will vote on the amendment in a few weeks time, and local communities are calling on the Scottish Government to back it so kelp dredging cannot go ahead at any scale.

Speaking to META, Ailsa McLellan, one of the leading voices in the movement to ban kelp dredging, said that local coastal communities are opposed to new dredging because they understand the importance of the unique habitat it provides. She said:

The importance of our wild kelp forests cannot be overstated.”

McLellan explained that kelp’s position at the bottom of the food chain meant that removing it has an impact on: “every species that relies on it, from the thousands of invertebrates which feed everything else, up through the fish and shellfish, to the birds and mammals and human fishermen”. 

She also pointed out the role kelp plays in dampening storm surges and preventing coastal erosion, as well as being a significant absorber of carbon:

Given what we know about climate change it would be short sighted in the extreme to allow kelp dredging to go ahead at any scale.”

Map showing the planned dredge block sites across the west coast of Scotland.

McLellan holds a kelp hand harvesting license under which she must harvest kelp in such a way that leaves the habitat unaltered and the plant largely intact so that it will be able to regenerate. She explained that:

“The hand harvesting licenses currently granted by the Crown Estate are rightly strict. They state that all kelp must be cut in such a way that the individuals can regenerate. The holdfast, stipe and a large part of the frond must be left. Bi-catch must be recorded and the habitat must not be impacted upon in any way. Marine Biopolymers state that they want to dredge the kelp up by the holdfast, chop off the holdfast and lob it over the side leaving bare strips through the kelp forest which would leave the entire kelp forest open to wave action and possible further destruction. Kelp dredging is a very destructive and indiscriminate way of gathering kelp with a vast collateral damage to other species. “

Marine Biopolymer wants to extract natural polymers from the seaweed for use in pharmaceutical and food products. While there is a growing market for seaweed products, McLellan says it is possible to farm kelp in a sustainable way and it would be extremely unethical to allow such significant environmental damage for the benefit of a single company:

“Currently the Scottish seaweed industry is focused on using seaweed as a high value product, harvested in a way that preserves the habitat.  Dredging would change that situation into one where kelp is a low value commodity product and the habitat is devastated. There is potential to use seaweeds in many applications from plastics, to animal feeds, to biofuels, but we must not let the wild habitat be destroyed in pursuit of it. We need to stop looking for disposable options, nothing comes without a price be it seaweed, cornstarch or plastic.  We need to reuse materials and think in the long term. Investment must go into farming kelp to supply the demand. Dredging [the wild beds] should never be considered as an option.”