UK's first from-scratch seagrass meadow in Tees Estuary could combat climate change

Jonny Blair went to Teesside to find out more about the project to re-establish seagrass in the Tees Estuary

A project to plant an underwater meadow of a grass which can absorb carbon faster than rainforests is underway.

Seagrass has been hailed as an ally in the fight against climate change due to its ability to capture carbon and protect the coast from storms and erosion, as well as remove pollutants from the water.

It once grew in the North East's Tees Estuary - a European Marine Site (EMS) home to seals, salmon and herons - but has been lost over the last century due to over exploitation of the river and deteriorating water quality.

Now, nursery-grown seagrass is being planted in the estuary in the hope it will grow into a meadow which will enrich its ecosystem in the coming decades.

It is thought to be the only project in the UK restoring seagrass from scratch and is part of wider plans to try and restore the habitat around our shores.

It is hoped it will help with coastal resilience, restore habitats and could help lock carbon in the sediment, says programme manager Judy Power, from the Tees Rivers Trust.

She told ITV Tyne Tees: "Seagrass is an ecosystem engineer. So seagrass can create habitat for small fish, marine invertebrates.

"As the roots grow it can help the sediment or the sand stay in place. So when you get massive tidal surges it will help keep the sand in place rather than it washing into the estuary.

"We also think there is a way it can take contaminants out of the water and into the soil but we're not quite sure how that happens yet - that's still new science."

The Tees Estuary is home to marine species including seals. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

According to the World Wildlife Trust (WWF), seagrass can capture up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests and accounts for 10-18% of total ocean carbon storage, despite covering less than 0.1% of the seafloor.

In the UK, 92% of seagrass meadows have been lost over the last century, the WWF says.

In the Tees Estuary, the planting in North Gare is the culmination of about two-and-a-half years of work.

An attempt to plant the grass failed last year when seedlings were buried by strong tides caused by storms.

This time, they have used more mature plants in the hope they will prove to be more hardy against the currents and are using three different methods to try and make sure the grass survives.

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The planting has taken a number of forms - with some seedlings placed in the ground and seeds either buried in small hessian bags or injected directly into the thick sediment of the estuary.

"We've been growing seagrass for two years now at our terrestrial nursery in Hartlepool," said Ms Power.

"We're very proud that we are the only terrestrial seagrass nursery in the whole of the North East of England, which is a big first for the Tees. We also had the first flowering seagrass plant in the whole of the UK last year.

"Everything is grown in Tees sediment with Tees water. We have the highest germination rate in the country."

Work taking place to plant seeds and small plants in the thick sediment of the Tees Estuary. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

It is hoped that by planting now - when the spring tide is lowest - it will help protect the seedlings.

And the area being planted is mostly underwater - preventing disturbance from walkers and dogs.

Kate Baxter, also from the Tees Rivers Trust, added: "The reason we put them underground is to keep the seeds safe from being predated by fish and crustaceans.

"So even the incoming tide and the waves is enough to wash them away. By putting them under the sediment you're basically protecting them from that.

"This site in particular is really good in terms of the muddiness of the sediment - it's really sticky and really thick."

It could be 30 years before a meadow grows. "It's long term," said Ms Power. "But we have to start somewhere."

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