Down Under - The UnSeen Sea

by Rich Howorth Marine Wildlife Author - Olle Akesson

The sea lies at our feet, but how much do we really know and appreciate what goes on beneath its murky green-grey waters? Our Biosphere Region extends 2 nautical miles out in to the English Channel, to include little-known areas of chalk rock on the seabed, that mirror the rich diversity of life found on the neighbouring chalk of the South Downs on land. In fact the chalk reef that follows the Undercliff coast path from Brighton Marina as far as Newhaven and beyond has been recognised as one of the very first new ‘Marine Conservation Zones’ (MCZs) in England. This MCZ of ‘Beachy Head West’ is in fact one of the best chalk reefs in all of Europe, its crevices hosting a wide array of life including rare sea horses – an animal you might expect to find in more exotic tropical waters!

The Seahorse Trust 1(c) The Seahorse Trust

The Sussex Wildlife Trust and others believe it vital that more MCZs are designated to protect and sensitively manage our marine life, and are appealing to local people who care about the sea to lend your support by responding to the Government’s current consultation (which ends on the 24th April!) on creating a second round of new MCZs, including 3 more sites off the Sussex coast. The seas around Sussex really are teaming with life. As you look out to sea you might be lucky enough to see a dolphin, but under the surface the English Channel is home to a wealth of nature. The coastline of chalk cliffs in the east of our Biosphere becomes shingle beaches in the west, themselves including internationally rare vegetated shingle patches. The chalk forms wave-cut gullies that run out to sea, as well as rocky outcrops just out to sea to the west. The chalk gullies are covered in seaweed and inhabited by Mussels, Crabs and fish, including rare Short-snouted seahorses that wrap their tails around the seaweed to stay put. Further west along the Sussex coast, the seabed is made up of gravel, sand and rock – a seemingly mundane habitat that forms an important feeding ground for flatfish like Plaice and Sole and breeding ground for Skates and Rays lay their eggs and hunt here. Old shipwrecks meanwhile create artificial reefs where Conger eels, Lobsters and shoals of fish reside.

mullet tbc

The Government is currently consulting on the designation of 23 new Marine Conservation Zones around England. Back in 2011 a total of 127 zones were proposed in English waters to protect the rarest, most pristine habitats and vulnerable species. They are also supposed to create an ecologically coherent network, allowing species to move and migrate between sites. In 2013 the Government designated just 27 zones in a first tranche, including three in Sussex: Beachy Head West, that extends from our Biosphere almost as far as Eastbourne; Kingmere off Worthing which protects the seabed nests of black sea bream; and Pagham Harbour near Chichester that hosts rare Defolin’s lagoon snails and seagrass meadows as nursery grounds for young fish. These designated areas now need appropriate management to be agreed to ensure they are properly protected and looked after and are not just lines on a marine chart. The second round of designations was announced by the Government at the end of January 2015. Disappointingly only 23 zones are being considered for designation this time. With so few sites put forward, the zones lack coherence and connectivity, making them small individual sanctuaries and not the ecologically coherent network promised. The three sites off the Sussex coastline included in the second round are:
  1. Utopia Just south-east of Selsey Bill, this site is an important Tope shark pupping ground. Soft and fragile sponges and corals such as Dead man’s fingers and White-striped anemones grow on the rocky outcrops and boulders scattered in the zone.
  1. Offshore Overfalls About ten miles south ofBognorRegis, and almost 600 km2 in size, the seabed here has a mix of habitats. Sandstone reefs provide shelter for Crabs, Lobsters and Shrimp, while the Overfalls - the zone’s namesake - is an unusual area where sand and gravel form waves across the seabed. The waves are important hunting and breeding ground for flatfish, Skates and Rays.
  1. Offshore Brighton Almost at the median line with France, and over 850 km2 in area, this deep water site is less affected by wind and wave activity. Because of this the deep rocky habitats are easilycolonised and have high species diversity. Here, Ross worms form biogenic reefs. The individual worms use sand and fine gravel to build tubes in which they live. Large congregations of the worms create complex structures on the seabed. In amongst the tubes smaller Crabs, Lobsters and fish make their home.
The Government has opened a consultation so that the public can have their say on Marine Conservation Zones and the Wildlife Trusts are urging anyone with an interest to respond. Please write a short email or letter, outlining that you support the designation of Marine Conservation Zones and stating why you feel the seas need protection. Finally say if you are particularly passionate about a specific MCZ, or simply give your personal view on why you feel the sea is important. We also need to tell the Government that we need many more zones so that they become a network and not just lone sites scattered around the coast. Individual letters such as this are given higher regard than simply ticking a box or liking a status to show your support.  To help you with your letter the Wildlife Trusts have put together an online form available at Some zones were dropped due to a “lack of public support” even before the consultation went live, so it is important to show the Government that there is strong public support for MCZs and marine conservation.


It is equally important that we all do our share to protect the seas. Eating sustainable seafood, not littering on the beach and making sure that bags and other plastics don't end up in the sea are all ways you can help keep the seas clean. The marine environment may seem like a distant place but it is accessible to everyone. You can go rock-pooling at low tide - the beach at Saltdean is particularly good and all you need is to find out when low tide is and put on a pair of wellies. If you're feeling more adventurous you can don a mask and snorkel yourself, or to find out what it’s really like out there, there are several dive clubs in Brighton to give you a taste of the underwater world. Dive in! Olle Akesson Living Seas Officer Sussex Wildlife Trust


  • Please consider Marine Conservation Zones in the South and other areas, to halt development and help to keep our breathing seas alive.

    20 Apr 2015 07:35:53

  • Hi
    Please come and see the work we do on the local beaches to help support the MCZ. come and join us on a beach clean. we would love to see you there. check out our Facebook page
    - for up to date info and events that we hold every month. Our next beach clean is 7/6/2015 on Ovingdean beach. bring along a picnic lunch as we will be celebrating the big lunch too –
    Come and join in the feelgoodfactor…see you on the beach!

    19 May 2015 17:13:19

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