The Botanist: Project Seagrass

Mapping Seagrass

By: Katie Smith


The Botanist Foundation exists to provide funding for organisations working on conserving and promoting biodiversity on Islay and beyond. Biodiversity doesn’t just apply on land however, and with 130 miles of coastline, and numerous sea lochs, including Lochindaal and Loch Gorm, Islay’s waters are very important for the island’s biodiversity.

The Botanist Foundation got in touch with Richard Lilley from Project Seagrass to undertake a Seagrass survey mapping exercise around Islay’s waters. Project Seagrass commissioned Peter Hume, from Sea Kintyre to carry out the survey.

Sea Kintyre is a marine conservation organisation set up by Peter Hume to perform mapping exercises that evaluate the health of coastal waters around the Kintyre peninsula. Peter organises volunteer placements for masters and PHD students who are studying the marine environment including seagrass, maerl and biodiversity. For this project, he found two brilliant volunteers to help him with the project, Alex and Lisa, both university students.

Sea Kintyre is self-funded at the moment but Peter hopes to apply for Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO) status to open up further avenues of funding within the next 12 months. In the meantime, funding is either awarded privately, as is the case with The Botanist Foundation, or through a commercial aspect of the business, where Peter offers snorkelling tours, educating participants on biodiversity and fostering a connection to the sea.

Peter set up Sea Kintyre after working for many years in offices, seeking a life more connected with nature and craving a working environment with likeminded individuals who shared his values. He went back to university and gained a master’s degree in Marine Systems and Policy at Edinburgh University. It was during this period of study that Peter’s passion for seagrass was ignited. It was also where he made the acquaintance of Richard Lilley from Project Seagrass.

Seagrass near the village of Bruichladdich Seagrass near the village of Bruichladdich

Seagrass is an important species for a number of reasons. It is very effective at sequestering carbon, because it raises the seabed with its rhizomes and roots, operating like a kind of underwater peat. Its an essential habitat for juvenile species like pipefish and crabs. Seagrass also improves water quality by catching sediment and, crucially, it can reduce ocean acidification, an effect of climate change.

One aim of the project was to map the closest seagrass meadow to Bruichladdich Distillery, at Port Ban. It took three attempts for the team to find the meadow due to poor weather – sediment in the loch had been churned up by windy conditions, resulting in very poor water quality.

The team also wanted to evaluate some old seagrass records from a benthic survey from 1980’s. They had rough coordinates and were keen to establish if these meadows were still in existence and map them. They found and mapped half of these meadows, however the other 50% were not there, either because of the reduction in seagrass meadows which scientists have seen since the 80’s or just not visible because of the poor water quality.

To bring the mapping exercise to life, Peter and his volunteers have been uploading images to Seagrass Spotter, a global website where citizen scientists can share their photos of seagrass meadows. The team also captured video footage using BRUV – Bated Remote Underwater Videos. These are created by placing a camera with mackerel bait into the meadow, and seeing what comes to eat it, giving an indication of biodiversity in the meadow.

This mapping exercise is an important step for the island, forming the beginnings of a baseline survey that subsequent mapping exercises can benchmark against in future.

Peter hopes that the project will raise awareness of seagrass meadows on Islay’s coast and would like to share information through noticeboards in the Islay Natural Heritage Centre. He’d also love to see the creation of a local snorkelling trail in future.

If he were to receive further funding, a phase two of the project could involve further surveying of larger areas, coordinated by Sea Kintyre. With as large a coastline as Islay has, it would take two teams to map, a boat, the use of a drone camera and an ROV. Phase three would then look restoration where needed.

Scotland and Wales are at the forefront of seagrass restoration so the future looks bright for this essential underwater miracle species.