Historical perspectives are vital if we are to truly appreciate the scale of past changes in our coastal seas. Increasing numbers of restoration projects are making use of historical sources to inform restoration goals and to connect communities to their local environmental history and heritage. Kelp beds are a critical element of a marine ecosystem, providing vital ecosystem services such as habitat for many commercially important species, and protection for coastal residents. The coast of West Sussex used to be home to an extensive and biodiverse kelp bed habitat spanning 30 km of coastline. This habitat was lost at the end of the 20th century, but is now being restored by the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project. However, our understanding of the spatial extent of this habitat, the timing and drivers of its demise, is very limited.
This project will use a multi-disciplinary approach centred on the emerging field of marine historical ecology to examine the historical extent, uses and impacts of this habitat. It will examine a variety of datasets from council records, to newspaper headlines, remote sensing to fishing activity and interview community elders to piece together a picture of this habitat, how it was once used, and to assess the causes of its decline. This information will of importance to informing the goals and expectations of the ongoing restoration project, and to ensure wide community support. The successful candidate will exploit a range of sources and approaches from the natural sciences, social sciences and history, providing them with an excellent opportunity to learn and employ a wide variety of valuable research skills.
Aims and objectives
This project will examine the history and perceptions of the Sussex kelp beds over the last century, with the aim to inform restoration goals and community understanding of the variety of benefits that restored kelp environments can bring. The specific questions we seek to answer are:
- What was the historical extent of kelp habitat and seaweed drift? How persistent was this habitat prior to its loss?
- Which drivers were correlated with past declines and increases in kelp habitat extent?
- In what ways did local communities and marine resource users perceive and value the kelp habitat? How did the presence and subsequent loss of the kelp habitat affect these communities, socially and economically?
To answer these questions, the candidate will be trained in the use of:
i) historical documentary evidence from government and local authority records, fisheries and popular media reports;
ii) Remote sensing and aerial photographic imagery, and;
iii) semi-structured interviews.
Using the above range of sources and supported by the combined interdisciplinary expertise of the academic and affiliated supervisors, this PhD project will provide a holistic view of the dynamics and social-ecological significance of an important marine habitat over the last century. This historical perspective will provide valuable evidence on the barriers and motivators to restoration and insights on what to expect when kelp habitats are restored in the region.
Although based at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus, the student will spend significant time at ZSL and with Associate Partners to understand the current state of knowledge and activities that are underway to support restoration activities. The project will integrate into the multi-institutional Sussex Kelp Restoration Project, connecting the student with a diverse range of stakeholders including fishers, divers, business owners, local authorities and other members of the Sussex coastal community. The student will thus build a strong interdisciplinary science and policy network, be exposed to the existing scientific and management challenges related to the Sussex Kelp Restoration project, generate an interdisciplinary skillset including mastery of remote sensing, archival and interview techniques, and further develop their research questions to meet academic, scientific and partner needs.
This project has been co-developed by several associate partners from universities, charities and government bodies who are an integral part of the Sussex Kelp Restoration project and who will remain actively and closely involved in the PhD project. Given the extensive network already in place, the first 18 months of the project will be dedicated to evidence gathering, interviews, and collation of historical documentation. During this time, the student will be based at ZSL with the secondary supervisor for approximately six months to focus upon and develop their remote sensing skills. The remaining PhD time will be dedicated to assessment and analysis of the discovered historical records and interview transcripts with at least three publishable PhD chapters anticipated.