Conservation significance of kelp forests

Kelp beds are a characterising feature of the UK coastal ecosystem and, although similar biotopes are also found in Norway, Ireland and the Brittany coasts of France, the kelp beds of the UK are more diverse and extensive than elsewhere in the EU. Within a narrow fringe around the coast a fabulous diversity of species may be found. Kelp beds have considerable conservation value for the following reasons:

  • Kelp plants are the major primary producers in the UK marine coastal habitat. Within the coastal euphotic zone (from high water mark to the depth of light penetration) kelps produce nearly 75% of the net carbon fixed annually on a shoreline with approximately 40% suitable substratum for macroalgal attachment (Birkett, Dring & Savidge, unpublished).
  • Each year, the kelp plants in the kelp beds produce about 2.7 times more biomass than the standing biomass of the kelp plants (Birkett, Dring & Savidge, unpublished).
  • Kelp detritus (particulate organic matter; POM) and dissolved organic matter (DOM) are exported from kelp beds and support ecosystems on soft bottoms (Thrush, 1986).
  • Kelp plants structurally support a diverse epiflora.
  • Kelp plants structurally support a diverse epifauna.
  • The holdfasts of kelp plants form a sheltered habitat for a diverse assemblage of animals.
  • Many of the organisms that live in kelp habitats are rare, unusual or poorly known
  • Kelp beds are dynamic ecosystems, where competition for light, space and food result in the species-rich, but patchy, distribution patterns of flora and fauna on the infralittoral reefs.
  • Although kelp population structure can recover from physical damage in the course of 5 -7 years, the re-establishment rates of the fauna and flora associated with the kelps appears to take a much longer as yet unknown period to return to pre-disturbance status.

In consideration of the points outlined in the above paragraphs, the candidate SACs were selected so as to include areas with extensive and varied kelp biotopes. Project demonstration sites selected which contain kelp biotopes are listed in the table below.

UK project demonstration sites (candidate SACs) containing infralittoral reefs with kelp (kelp beds)
EU habitats listed
Papa Stour Reefs; seacaves
Loch Maddy Shallow inlets & bays; lagoons
Sound of Arisaig Sandbanks
Berwickshire, Northumberland coast Mud-sandflats; reefs; seacaves
Strangford Lough Shallow inlets & bays
Lleyn peninsula & the Sarnau Estuaries; reefs
Cardigan Bay Reefs
Plymouth Sound & Estuaries Sandbanks; estuaries; shallow inlets & bays

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