£2.4m project aims to map ocean’s unsung hero and return oysters to Forth

A major mapping project is underway at a beach in Fife as part of a £2.4m restoration project which will see 30,000 oysters introduced to the Forth.

Marine biologists from Heriot-Watt University have started work at Kinghorn to map seagrass meadows off the beach.

And they are working with community groups on either side of the Forth to get an accurate picture of the seagrass meadows - often described as the ocean’s unsung heroes - which play an important role in the ecology of the firth.

The work of Dr Alastair Lyndon and Matthew Abutunghe, an MSc student from Heriot Watt University forms part of the Restoration Forth project which will take three years.

Dr Alastair Lyndon, senior lecturer in marine biology at Heriot Watt University, is leading the Restoration Forth project which will take three years and map seagrass across the River Forth and restore around four hectares of meadows

It aims to restore around four hectares of seagrass meadows - and to introduce 30,000 oysters to the Forth.

The project is run by WWF Scotland, and Heriot-Watt is a partner organisation alongside Fife Ecology Centre, Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, the Marine Conservation Society, Edinburgh Shoreline Project and many others.

Kinghorn’s beachscape is of particular importance because it is the major site in the Forth for the larger seagrass, known Zostera marina.

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Seagrass Meadows at Kinghorn beach

It probably goes un-noticed by people walking the vast beach at low tide, but it is an important part of the river’s ecology.

The research will not only map the seagrass, but help marine biologists understand how it changes - and has changed over the generations.

Dr Lyndon explained: “Kinghorn is a major site in the Forth for the larger seagrass.

“It’s not a neat seagrass meadow, it’s very patchy and interspersed with some dwarf seagrass.

The seagrass meadows on Kinghorn beach

“The seagrass bed here has got smaller over the years, but it hasn’t disappeared completely - but we need to find out how to improve things.”

The team already knows seagrass has been part of the escape for over 200 years - Kinghorn is the oldest known bed in the Forth

A sample of its seagrass dating from 1820 can be found at the arboretum at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh - a historic sample which perhaps throes up more questions than answers.

Dr Lyndon said: “It may have been someone who went to the beach, picked it up and pressed it - people do collect samples - and while that gives us some fantastic information, w don;t know whether seagrass has been there all that time.

“But we know it likes the area and the conditions.

““It is elsewhere but not to the same extent. They tend to be of dwarf seagrass, and smaller batches of the largest seagrass. At certain points they then link together.“Whether this is down to tides we are not sure, but we know it has been here a long time so it has to be self sustaining.”

Dr Lyndon has surveyed seagrass in the Forth area over the past 10 years and hopes the project will raise awareness about the plant’s importance, as well as restore meadows up and down the river.

He explained: “Seagrass is the only marine plant with roots.

“Most stick like seaweed to rocks. This grows in soft sand and mud, and patches bind together.

“These play a huge role in stabilising the seabed and protecting communities from coastal erosion and they act as a carbon store.

“Seagrass is also a biodiversity hotspot and provides a home to a whole host of marine species, like oysters, molluscs and shrimp.

“And because it is bound, when waves come along and stir the sand, seagrass holds itself together.

“Big patches of seagrass can mitigate tidal change, and that can reduce wave action to the shore and reduce coastal erosion.

“It also traps sediment and that, in turn traps carbon, and that can be important for climate change

“Seagrass pulls carbon out of the atmosphere quickly - it’s better doing it per square metre than a rainforest … we just don’t have rainforests here!”

Its importance to the ecology of the river is one of the reasons why the project has big ambitions.

As it re-establishes seagrass, it also plans to create a blueprint to restore and sustainably manage oyster habitats in the Forth.

Oyster reefs once flourished in the Fort. Early settlers lived entirely off them and fish, and, at their peak, they produced over 30 million oysters a year, and were exported all across Europe.

Oysters, which have a key role to play in removing pollutants as well as providing sanctuary for a vast array of marine life, were wiped out in the Victorian era as a result of over-exploitation.

With mapping work underway, the next stage is to have incubators placed near the shore.

They will come from Kinghorn’s long-established Ecology Centre, and the team hopes that, in turn, will spark greater community interest to spread awareness of the project - and bring together the many groups already involved in maintaining and supporting the coastline on either side of the Forth.

Dr Lyndon said: “We want local communities to be enthused and engaged.

“They may think about marine biology on a trip to the beach on a sunny day, but there is so much interesting stuff around them to be aware of.

“So, we want to get information out and are working with community hubs, such as the Ecology Centre and the Botanics.

“There are so many groups all interested in coastal issues and doing a lot of great work.

“They may not know of others in the same sphere so we are hoping to pull them together and get a critical mass of people keen to be involved.”

“There are lots of exciting opportunities going ahead.”