THEY are vast underwater forests, offering vital habitats for a range of seaweeds and animals that also act as nurseries for fish, including pollock and Atlantic cod, and help protect the coastline from erosion.

But one Scots company wants to harvest 30,000 tonnes of kelp off the west coast in a bid that has sparked controversy, amid concern for the preservation of these intricate systems, with Sir David Attenborough now stepping in to voice his concerns.

It comes as Ayr-based Marine Biopolymers (MBL) claims Scotland could lose out on a £300 million industry if MSPs vote to ban the industrial harvesting of kelp in its waters.

The firm wants to harvest the kelp using a revolutionary process it has developed to create a product that could be used to make “invisible armour” or slow release cancer drugs.

The nanocellulose it produces from the seaweed is the “best in the world”, it claims, and could have a whole host of possible applications – including an alternative to the vaginal mesh implants that have left some women in crippling pain.

But MBL says this hi-tech new industry will be halted if MSPs pass new legislation that bans dredging for kelp.

After more than 14,000 people signed a petition against such dredging, Green MSP Mark Ruskell successfully amended the Scottish Crown Estate Bill to ban the removal of entire kelp plants.

Veteran naturalist Sir David Attenborough has also lent his voice to the cause, speaking to Fauna & Flora International (FFI), of which he is vice-president, saying: “Charles Darwin was one of the first people to recognise just how important kelp forests are for our oceans, comparing them in diversity to rainforests.

“These kelp forests, which can be found right here, around the coast of the British Isles, not only form an important part of the food chain, but also act as a vital habitat for a wide array of species. 

“Their thick foliage offers food and safety from predators, and provides a nursery ground where juvenile fish can mature in safety.

“Look closely among the intricate stems and fronds of kelp, and you will find a range of fascinating sea life, from invertebrates such as sea stars, anemones and limpets, to mammals such as sea otters. 

“Many of the fish species, such as cod, that are so important to us economically and culturally are also found here.

“For these reasons and many more – carbon storage being just one – it is imperative we protect our kelp forests.”

But MBL co-founder David Mackie insisted its plans to harvest the seaweed laminaria hyperborea are “entirely sustainable”, saying there is an estimated 20 million tonnes of it in Scotland’s waters.

The kelp, which he described as “the daddy of the seaweeds in Scottish waters”, grows up to 8ft long, with the plants attaching themselves to rocky surfaces.

He said: “People say we intend to dredge. Well you can’t dredge a rocky bottom, so we’re not doing that.”

As MBL developed its processes to remove alginate from the seaweed, it found marine cellulose was also produced.

Dr Mark Dorris, a senior research fellow and lecturer in material science at Edinburgh’s Napier University, has been working with that to create new bioplastic materials, the starting point of which are fibres that are 1,000th of the width of a human hair.

Wood pulp is already used to produce nanocellulose, but Dr Dorris said when kelp is used the end result is “better than any nanocellulose in the world”.

This raw product can be turned into bioplastics to be used in food packaging 
for products such as sandwiches and ready meals, but work has also been taking place with the Ministry of Defence to develop a “transparent armour” that could be used for helmet visors and body shields by police and the armed services.

The nanocellulose could also be used to develop slow release drugs for treating colon cancer, as well as to help conserve fragile, historic documents and artefacts.

Dr Dorris said: “There’s loads of applications for this, medical implants, meshes. This stuff, because it is made from seaweed, is biocompatible, the wood cellulose isn’t.”

But Mr Mackie said he fears plans to develop such products could be halted if MSPs vote through the legislation as it currently stands on Wednesday.

He said: “We worked long and hard to develop our process, basically we have turned the whole alginate processing upside down, to get to what is unique, nobody else does it.

“We’ve got this brilliant raw material, we do a wee bit of magic with it.

“This is the thing I am most proud of that we have done, and when I see what these guys can do it is just incredible.”

For Sir David, though, his concerns for kelp remain.

He said: “It is perfectly possible to harvest them sustainably by removing their fronds while leaving the rest of the plant intact.

“But dredging – or indeed any kind of harvesting that removes the whole plant – is a wholly short-sighted measure that risks the wholesale devastation of our kelp beds.

“I urge decision makers to take the necessary action to protect these vital, and globally important, habitats.”