Queen Elizabeth owns most of the British seabed. This slows down the repair work. † National Geographic

It is widely known that Queen Elizabeth is one of the largest landowners in the world. Less well known is that its holdings include most of the sea floor around the United Kingdom, even twelve nautical miles offshore.

This astonishing detail from the history of the monarchy sheds a different light as Britain’s declining biodiversity draws more attention. The royal family has been urged to take a bigger role in restoring nature, starting with the properties they manage.

Recently, efforts to restore coastal waters have run into obstacles unique to this monarchy. For example, a seaweed farm has been evacuated to Southeast Asia and Britain’s largest ever seaweed replanting project threatens to be derailed.

According to supporters, the UK is not in a position to pass such opportunities. Almost half of all species of wildlife and plants have been lost since the Industrial Revolution. This is evidenced by the monitoring of biodiversity initiated last year by the Natural History Museum in London. Britain now ranks in the bottom ten percent of the world and the worst performer among the G7 nations.

Scientists describe the loss of seagrass beds and seagrass forests near the coast in one word as catastrophic. Nearly ninety percent of the seaweed disappeared. Much of it has been in the past 30 years due to coastal development, overfishing, pollution, and damage from boats and moorings. Some scientists predict that most of the UK’s 67,000 square miles of seagrass forests will be lost by 2100.

When eels and seagrass thrive, they provide protection against coastal erosion, act as a nursery for coastal marine life and store vast amounts of carbon. However, permission to restore these ecosystems requires a lease and fees to be paid to the Crown Estate. It is a commercial real estate company that manages the Queen’s property.

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Scientists and advocates involved in recovery efforts say the notion that a push is needed to restore dying ecosystems for the benefit of the nation is misguided. In other places this is not necessary. In Florida, for example, the government owns coastal waters. It makes areas freely available for restoration and, in some cases, requires project developers to fund restoration projects. So says Susan Bell, a marine ecologist at the University of South Florida.

Richard Unsworth, professor of marine ecology at Swansea University in Wales, cannot understand that Crown “will make us pay to grow seaweed on the seafloor”. His seaweed project is one of the major efforts to restore the UK’s marine environment.

In collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund and Sky Ocean Rescue, Unsworth has developed plans to replant 3,035 hectares of seagrass in hundreds of places along the British coast. The lease of a two-acre test site off the coast of Wales had to pay £2,500. Unsworth says he fears the costs of the rest of the campaign will turn out to be prohibitive.

Much of the campaign money will be raised locally through donations of 10 or 5 pounds.

“Did you know that kids tell us they ask their friends to donate their birthday instead of giving gifts to each other? And we pass that money on to the Queen,” Unsworth says. “It’s a mess, let’s face it. There wasn’t a moment I thought: They’re trying to help us.

Meanwhile, a Hampshire company wanted to create a network of 58 small seaweed farms across the country in hopes of growing biomaterials for plastics, cosmetics and animal feed while boosting marine biodiversity and reducing carbon dioxide.2 store, and wait a year for leases from the Crown Estate and permits from the government. When investors got impatient, Howard Johnstock, co-founder of Carbon Kapture, moved seaweed production to Southeast Asia.

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“If it takes too long, the period in which the work is allowed will expire,” Gunstock says. “Eighteen months later, these connections are no longer useful to me.”

The queen and the seabed have a long history

The queen owes her vast possessions, including the seabed, to the Norman conquest in 1066. William the Conqueror then demanded the whole of England for the crown. Although the Queen is now by law the legal owner of all the lands, this does not give her authority over most of it. She has complete control only of her own properties, which include Balmoral and Sandringham.

But as an owner, she continues to earn income from the sea floor and half of the intertidal zone, the land between the high and low water marks. This is part of Crown Estates, which also includes all stocks of silver, gold and precious properties in central London.

This £14.4 billion portfolio is managed by the Crown Estate on behalf of the Queen. This is stipulated in an agreement concluded in 1760 between Parliament and King George III. Early in his reign, years before confronting the American revolutionaries, he faced a financial crisis. This prompted him to transfer management of the Crown Estates in exchange for a fixed annual allowance of income from those assets.

Today, this ‘unique and substantial British organisation’, as the British Parliament called the Crown Estate Company, is a combination of the Royal Endowment and the Public Investment Fund. The income goes to the state treasury and a quarter is paid to members of the royal family. Over the past 10 years, Crown Estate has raised £3 billion for the royal family and treasury.

Most of this income comes from urban real estate, including most of London’s famous Regent Street. The seabed has recently become a major source of income for the Crown Estate. Offshore revenue from sources such as offshore wind turbines, pipelines and cables was £121 million in 2021.

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Parliament criticized Crown Estates for its emphasis on monetization, which “appears to have prevented Crown Estate trustees from taking the broader public interests into account.” The announcement of a windfall of £8.8 billion over the next decade from the sale of offshore wind farm leases sparked an outcry in Parliament. Lawmakers called for the old institution to be modernized or removed from its administrative duties.

“The seabed is more than just a profitable cow for the estate and the royal treasury,” said Luke Pollard, a Member of Parliament from the port city of Plymouth. In the midst of a climate and environmental crisis, it is imperative that the Crown Estate protects nature and carbon dioxide2 At the same level of income from external activities.

Time for more reforms?

Some argue that the antiquity of the Crown Estate is the crux of the problem. Economist Duncan McCann says no one would have deliberately set up such a financial institution, which is neither the private property of the king nor a state agency of the government. Instead, the Crown Estate is a mixed establishment created through gradual reforms over hundreds of years.

Some critics now believe that more reforms are needed. The Zoological Society of London and the Marine Conservation Society have recommended permitting reforms that would promote the restoration and recognition of marine habitats. A study by the New Economics Foundation concluded that restoring seagrass forests in just one part of West Sussex, along the southern coast of England, would benefit the local community by more than £3 million annually.

Megan Vasquez

"Creator. Coffee buff. Internet lover. Organizer. Pop culture geek. Tv fan. Proud foodaholic."

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