Kelp Distribution in European and UK Waters

Kelp species

In almost any coastal area of Europe where there is a suitable substratum (rock, boulder, cobble, artificial substrata) and adequate water quality, one or more species of kelp may be found. On the western coasts of the UK, the geological conditions result in a complexity of bays and headlands, rocky shores and cliffs, offshore islands and islets, intertidal and submerged reefs which are ideal for the development of kelp forests. With the exception of heavily silt-loaded estuarine areas, all subtidal, stable rock substrata within the photic zone of northern Europe are likely to be colonised by kelp. On the Eastern coasts of the UK, in particular from the Thames estuary to the Ouse estuary, and in the southern parts of the North Sea, the coasts are mostly either depositional shores or are formed of friable rock, unsuitable for kelp attachment and so distribution is sporadic at best. Further north, as rocky shores become more prevalent once again, kelp beds reappear along the coasts. In the north west of Scotland, particularly around the Hebrides where the habitat is especially suitable with gently shelving rocky basins between many of the islands, the kelp forests cover an enormous area of the subtidal seabed with L. hyperborea being the dominant kelp. Kelp beds of a similar extent are found on the coasts of Brittany, where the dominant species is L. digitata.

Kelp species

In European waters

There are at present 13 species (confirmed) of kelp found in European waters of which two are introduced aliens which have escaped from cultivation. Of the remaining species, 4 have a northern (boreal) distribution and 4 have a southern distribution, while the other 3 species are found in both northern and southern waters (see table below). There is some debate as to the validity of the species of Laminaria in the simplices group (L. saccharina). In northern waters (Scotland and the Faeroes) there are kelp plants that have been identified as L. longicruris and L. faroensis. However, other authors regard these as local growth forms of L. saccharina. For the purposes of this review, the debatable species will be considered as forms of L. saccharina.

An excellent review of the history of the evolution of the marine benthic flora and its distribution patterns can be found in Lüning (1990, chapter 2). The relatively large numbers of different kelp species found in European waters are the result of the pattern of tectonic activities and the development of oceanic circulation patterns over the last 15 million years. As a result, we now have, within European waters, kelp species representative of both North Atlantic and North Pacific genera, of warm water origin, of cool water origin and of Arctic water origin.

Kelp species found in European waters

Species name and authority


habitat depth

Alaria esculenta

(Linnaeus) Greville

Spitzbergen; Murmansk to southern Brittany

+1 - 35 m

Laminaria digitata

(Linnaeus) Lamouroux

Spitzbergen; Novaya Zemlya to mid- Bay of Biscay

+1 - 3 (40)m northern 0-10 m southern

Laminaria hyperborea

(Gunnerus) Foslie

Spitzbergen; Murmansk to mid- Portugal

1 - 47 m *

Laminaria japonica


Mediterranean, introduced alien

no data

Laminaria ochroleuca

de la Pylaie

Cornwall - Morocco; Mediterranean

0 - 30 (75) m

Laminaria rodriguezii



50 - 120 m

Laminaria saccharina

(Linnaeus) Lamouroux

Spitzbergen; Murmansk to Portugal

0 - 20 m

Laminaria solidungula

J. Agardh

Spitzbergen, Novaya Zemlya

1.5 - 20 m

Phyllariopsis brevipes

(C. Agardh) Henry et South

southern Bay of Biscay to Morocco; Mediterranean

0 - 30 m

Phyllariopsis purpurascens

(C. Agardh) Henry et South

northern Spain to Morocco; Mediterranean

no data

Saccorhiza dermatodea

(de la Pylaie) J. Agardh

Spitzbergen; Novaya Zemlya to mid- Norway

0 - 20 m

Saccorhiza polyschides

(Lightfoot) Batters

mid-Norway to Ghana; parts of Mediterranean

0 - 30 m

Undaria pinnatifida

(Harvey) Suringar

Channel coasts; Mediterranean, introduced alien

+1.5 - 15 m

Information abstracted from Lüning (1990) and references

* MNCR survey of St. Kilda, 1997

In UK waters

There are 7 species (confirmed) of kelps found in UK waters, one of which is a recently introduced alien (Undaria pinnatifida) and one of which is a southern species the range of which is extending northward (L. ochroleuca). The most common species in kelp beds are L. digitata and L. hyperborea, the latter often out-competing the former in shallow water in the northern parts of the UK.

The species listed in the table below are the most commonly found kelps which form the foundation of the kelp biotopes found in European waters. In the Mediterranean and on the south-western Atlantic coasts of the EU, kelp plants are often found in deeper waters and growing in more mixed communities, the kelp species therefore forming a less dominant component within the coastal ecosystems.


Kelp species found in UK waters


common and local names

Alaria esculenta dabberlocks (British Isles)
Laminaria digitata horsetail kelp, sea girdle, sea wand, red ware (British Isles); anguiller, tali (Brittany, France); fingertare, silketare (Norway); fingertang (Sweden, Germany); kelp, horsetail kelp (USA).
Laminaria hyperborea tangle, redware, cuvie, cuvy (British Isles); trolltare, stortare, stokktare, palmetare, skrame, hestatare, havetare, kurvtare, stolpetare (Norway); Palmetang (Germany); tali-penn, tali-ebrel (Brittany, France).
Laminaria ochroleuca none - species recent in UK waters
Laminaria saccharina oar weed, sea-belt (sugar-kelp, D. Connor pers.comm.)
Saccorhiza polyschides bulbous Laminaria, bulbous rooted tangle, furbelows, sea furbelows, great furlowed Laminaria, furbelowed hangers (British Isles); sekktare (Norway); carocha, caixeira, cintas, golfe, limo-correira, limo-corriola (Portugal).
Undaria pinnatifida Wakame


Illustrations and descriptions of the kelp species found in UK waters

Distribution of kelps in European coastal waters

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