Project Seagrass: restoring our oceans

Richard Lilley, CEO of Project Seagrass, outlines the work that the organisation has done in restoring the UK’s seagrass meadows, urging for a ‘cultural change’ in our relationship with nature.


Photo credit – Seagrass meadow © Lewis Jefferies

Richard Lilley

Eight years ago, sitting on a rooftop café at Swansea University, we ambitiously set up a small marine conservation organisation called Project Seagrass. Ambition really is critical when it comes to tackling biodiversity and climate emergencies, and for us, a ‘business as usual’ approach was simply not an option anymore. 

Seagrass meadows had previously been referred to as the ‘ugly duckling’ of marine conservation. The inception of Project Seagrass was ultimately built around wanting to change that perception and to put seagrass ecosystems firmly at the heart of the marine conservation agenda, and in some respects, to that end, we have succeeded.

In the UK today, Seagrass is spearheading the marine restoration movement. In 2019, two years prior to the UN Decade On Ecosystem Restoration, we were part of a consortium that launched ‘Seagrass Ocean Rescue’. This was the first full-scale seagrass restoration project in the UK, it was a pilot project, and it was located in Dale, Pembrokeshire. This project was conducted in collaboration with our partners WWF UK, Sky Ocean Rescue and Swansea University. At the time, the stated ambition of this pilot project was to plant one million seagrass seeds over two hectares (20,000m2) of seabed by 2021. However, this project was ultimately about much more than that, we saw it as an opportunity to make a statement that marine restoration at scale is possible in the UK, and that the active restoration of our degraded seascapes is a course of action that we should be looking to pursue. 

Today, in 2021, at the start of UN Decade On Ecosystem Restoration we are further scaling up our restoration activities; with three new seagrass restoration projects starting in Wales, England and Scotland. Parallel to these projects we are also seeking to scale our restoration efforts in two ways. Firstly, through a research-led Mechanisation Programme where we will be adapting and deploying methods in Wales that were originally developed for the world’s most successful seagrass restoration project in Chesapeake Bay. This programme of work will hopefully enable us to collect and plant seeds more efficiently than we do today. 

Then, secondly, through the construction and development of a Seagrass Nursery. The Seagrass Nursery project only started in July, and so we are very much in the early days of its development. Our hope for the nursery is that we can grow seagrass in large saltwater ponds, harvest the seeds produced, and use these seeds to restore wild meadows around our coastline. Critically, we do not view this nursery as a resource for our own projects, but for any projects in the UK that want to restore seagrass meadows. 

Needless to say, the next ten years are going to be critical, the challenge for us is that marine restoration science is still in its infancy and there is still a lot to learn. But beyond the science, there is also the need for cultural change. We need to embrace ambition and work together to restore nature. However, we also need to view this as just one of the many changes that need to be made. 

Nature-based solutions of all kinds are gaining traction, and I welcome the championing of new ways of working with nature that are underpinned by biodiversity and led by local communities. However, I must caution that these projects alone cannot be considered a ‘silver bullet’ solution to climate change, restoration projects mustn’t become a distraction from decarbonising our energy systems.

But let’s end on a positive! Project Seagrass is a supporting partner to the UN Decade On Ecosystem Restoration and it feels appropriate here to champion their Call To Action.

“Ecosystems support all life on Earth. The healthier our ecosystems are, the healthier the planet – and its people. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. It can help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent mass extinction. It will only succeed if everyone plays a part.”

Join the global movement to restore our world. 

Richard Lilley, CEO of Project Seagrass, will be featured as a panellist for ‘The Forgotten 70%: the crucial place of oceans in climate and biodiversity’, at the autumn conference tomorrow (23 October), 17:30-19:00 in the Eastside Rooms (Main Hall).

To access the full programme, please visit the Green Party website.