The Marine Life Information Network

Information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles


Dabberlocks (Alaria esculenta)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.Map Help



Short cylindrical stipe (exceptionally up to 75 cm) continuing as a distinct midrib throughout the length of the narrow, ribbon-like, slightly wavy blade. Attached to substrate by claw-like holdfast termed haptera. The blade is yellowish, olive-green or rich brown in colour, supple to the touch and very flexible. Blade length varies seasonally but is usually between 30 cm - 1.5 m (exceptionally 4 m) in length. Blade may be tattered and torn by wave action sometimes leaving only the midrib at which point it may be confused with Chorda filum. Older plants may have flat, finger-like sporophylls, each up to 10 cm in length, growing from the stipe at the base of the blade. The sporophylls bear reproductive bodies called sori. When fertile the sori form a typical H-shaped figure on the sporophylls.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Found around the Shetland Isles, Orkney and east coast of Scotland, south to Flamborough Head in England. Its distribution continues along the south west of England and the west coasts of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland including the Isle of Man.

Global distribution

Alaria esculenta occurs in the North Atlantic from Novaya Zemlya to Iceland and south to Brittany in the east and from the shores of Greenland to the Bering Strait in the west. It also occurs in the Bering Sea and Sea of Japan in the North Pacific


Alaria esculenta is found at low water and in the subtidal to about 8 m depth on exposed rocky shores. In exceptionally high exposure (e.g. Rockall, UK and Scellig Islands, Ireland) it has been recorded to 35 m depth.

Depth range

0-8 m

Identifying features

  • Plant with claw shaped holdfast, cylindrical stipe and flattened ribbon-like blade with distinct midrib.
  • No side veins in blade.
  • Un-branched (except for sporophylls near base).
  • Sporophylls have a narrow base and are widest at the tip; the rounded tips often slightly expanded.

Additional information

Other common names include wing kelp, honeyware, edible fucus, and bladder locks in England; dabberlocks and keys in Scotland; and murlins, ribini, and Cupog nag Cloc in Ireland (Guiry 2000). The species name Alaria esculenta literally means 'edible wings'. This species was originally described as Fucus esculentus Linnaeus, 1767. The class Phaeophyceae may alternatively be classified in the Phylum Heterokontophyta ( Hoek van den et al. 1995).

Alaria (Phaeophyceae, Alariaceae) is a common genus of kelps in the northern hemisphere. Fourteen species are currently recognised of which three (Alaria esculenta (L.) Greville, Alaria pylaii (Bory de Saint-Vincent) Greville, and Alaria grandifolia J. Agardh) are reported for the cold -temperate North Atlantic Ocean. Alaria esculenta, the type species described originally from the North Atlantic, exhibits a range of biogeographically correlated morphotypes suggesting the possibility of multiple specific or intraspecific entities or hybrids (Kraan pers. comm.; Kraan & Guiry 2000 in press). A key to the species of the genus Alaria is given by Widdowson (1971).

Listed by

- none -

Biology review


Authority(Linnaeus) Greville, 1830
Recent SynonymsAlaria platyrhiza (Linnaeus) Greville, 1830


Typical abundanceHigh density
Male size range
Male size at maturity
Female size rangeLarge(>50cm)
Female size at maturity
Growth formStraplike / Ribbonlike
Growth rate20 cm/month
Body flexibilityHigh (greater than 45 degrees)
Characteristic feeding methodAutotroph
Diet/food sourcePhotoautotroph
Typically feeds onNot relevant
SociabilityNot relevant
Environmental positionEpifloral, Epilithic
DependencyNot relevant.

Bryozoa and several epiphytes including Litosiphon laminariae (Kraan pers. comm.).

Is the species harmful?No


Biology information

  • Alaria esculenta forms the main canopy in exposed rocky areas.
  • Alaria esculenta is a colonizing species that will occur in recently denuded rock surfaces in exposed to sheltered situations.
  • Maximum growth rates in the field (20 cm/month) occur in April and May (Isle of Man). Plants on adjacent rope aquaculture system had an average growth rate of 5 cm per day (Birkett et al., 1999b). Kain & Dawes (1987) reported growth rates of 10 cm per day during one spring growth period on a rope aquaculture system in the Isle of Man. However, fields trials with different strains of Alaria esculenta resulted in highest growth rates of 25 cm/month and lowest rates of 5 cm/month (Kraan pers. comm.).
  • In June and July growth slows and the blade becomes eroded and damaged by wave action depending on depth. Alaria esculenta in the lower eulittoral and upper sublittoral will erode away completely due to higher summer water temperatures and bleaching by sunlight. Populations at 2 m or more below low water survive (Kraan pers. comm.).
  • In strong currents and low wave action the blade may reach 4 m in length (e.g. Aran Islands, Ireland; Guiry, 1997).
  • A short stipe and narrow lamina base is characteristic of exposed conditions whereas in sheltered conditions the stipe is long and the lamina base wider (Widdowson, 1971).

Habitat preferences

Physiographic preferencesOpen coast, Sea loch / Sea lough
Biological zone preferencesLower eulittoral, Sublittoral fringe, Upper infralittoral
Substratum / habitat preferencesArtificial (man-made), Bedrock, Cobbles, Large to very large boulders, Pebbles, Small boulders
Tidal strength preferencesModerately Strong 1 to 3 knots (0.5-1.5 m/sec.), Strong 3 to 6 knots (1.5-3 m/sec.), Weak < 1 knot (<0.5 m/sec.)
Wave exposure preferencesExposed, Extremely exposed, Very exposed
Salinity preferencesFull (30-40 psu)
Depth range0-8 m
Other preferences-2 °C winter isotherm (as far as sea ice) and up to 16 °C summer isotherm.
Migration PatternNon-migratory / resident

Habitat Information

Alaria esculenta is absent from most of the east coast of England, primarily due to a lack of suitable substrata. The species is found all around the Irish coast, where rocky shores as substratum are available. It occurs at a depth of 15 m in the Aran Islands and below 35 m off the Scellig Islands, Ireland and Rockall.

Alaria esculenta is present in the North Pacific and North Atlantic, where it is located north as far as the winter sea ice and as far south as the 16 °C summer isotherm, represented by the French coast of Brittany in the European North Atlantic (Luning, 1990). Its absence in the southern North Sea and English Channel is due to high summer surface temperatures of 16 °C, which it cannot survive (Munda & Luning, 1977; Widdowson, 1971; Sundene, 1962). Its distribution in the Arctic Sea is associated with the -2 °C February winter isotherm (Kraan pers. comm.).

Life history

Adult characteristics

Reproductive typeAlternation of generations
Reproductive frequency Annual episodic
Fecundity (number of eggs)>1,000,000
Generation time1 year
Age at maturity8 - 14 months
SeasonOctober - May
Life span5-10 years

Larval characteristics

Larval/propagule type-
Larval/juvenile development Spores (sexual / asexual)
Duration of larval stage1 day
Larval dispersal potential 10 -100 m
Larval settlement period

Life history information

The fecundity reported above is for zoospore production. Both the sporophyte and gametophyte are photoautotrophs but only the gametophyte may develop vegetatively.
  • Dispersal potential varies with phase in the life cycle; zoospores may disperse <2m whereas gametophytes may disperse between 1 -10 m by drifting, maybe up to 100 m (Kraan pers. comm.).
  • Alaria esculenta is a perennial and lives for 4 -5 years in the Irish Sea and up to 7 years in Norway.
  • Two rows of ligulate sporophylls form in the upper parts of the stipe during spring and in a lesser amount in autumn only (Kraan pers. comm.; Widdowson, 1971).
  • New sporophytes appear in early spring and zoospores are produced from sporophylls between October and May (Kraan pers. comm.; Birkett et al., 1998b).
  • The sporophylls produce haploid spores (zoospores), by meiosis, that germinate to form the haploid or gametophytic phase (male and female). Gametophytes produce the gametes (sperm and eggs) which fuse after fertilization to form a zygote. The zygotes germinates to form diploid platelets (germlings), the sporophytic phase. Thus the life history is that the large seaweed (sporophyte) alternates with a microscopic filamentous phase (Hoek van den, 1995). Therefore, Alaria esculenta is dioecious and has a heteromorphic diplohaplontic life history.
  • The flagellated zoospores are about 5 microns in diameter. They loose their flagella after 24 hrs and settle on the available substrata (Birkett et al., 1998b). However, settling rate is dependant on the local currents, therefore spore settling time is probably longer than 1 day.
  • Sundene (1961) noted that next generation sporophytes developed within 10 m of the parent plants in Drobak, Norway. Norton (1992) suggested that the position of the sporophylls close to the substratum may limit dispersal potential, however the local currents are probably of overriding importance for dispersal.
  • Gametophytes become fertile in under 10 days in optimal conditions.
  • Successful fertilization requires a high density of spore settlement (about 1 mm apart).
  • Maturation of the gametophytes can be delayed under less optimal conditions, for example, low light, and development remains vegetative. Fragments of damaged vegetative gametophytes may develop into separate gametophytes (only a few cells are required) hence reproductive potential may be increased. If optimal conditions return the gametophyte may become fertile and produce gametes.
  • Spore production may be inhibited by epifauna such as Membranipora membranacea (sea mat) and endophytes such as Streblonema sp.

Sensitivity reviewHow is sensitivity assessed?

Physical pressures

High High Moderate Moderate

Removal of the substratum would entail removal of the plants themselves, germlings and gametophytes. They can not re-attach once removed and would be swept away. Evidence from storm damage and experimental removal of adult Laminaria species in Australia indicates that kelp forest can re-grow within 14 months. These experiments did not remove the gametophyte 'seed' bank. New individuals of Alaria esculenta colonized within 10 m of the parent plants in Norway. However, given the potentially large number of spores and gametophytes it is likely that recolonization would occur rapidly and sporophytes may grow up to 20 cm/month under optimal conditions in the field and up to 10 cm/day in rope culture systems (Birkett et al., 1998b; Kain & Dawes, 1987).

Intermediate High Low Low

Although smothering of the adult sporophyte may reduce photosynthetic activity it is unlikely to cause damage. However, juvenile sporophytes may be smothered and their growth inhibited. The germlings, zoospores and gametophytes are likely to be intolerant of smothering.

Intermediate High Low Low

Increased sedimentation may result in smothering of adults (sporophytes), germlings and gametophytes (see above). Increased sediment deposition may increase sediment scour which may damage sporelings in particular. However, the most likely effect of increased siltation will be increased light attenuation and turbidity (see below).

No information
High High Moderate Low

Kelps are normally subtidal species and are likely to be intolerant of desiccation. Alaria esculenta may extend into the lower eulittoral in very exposed conditions. However, these marginal populations have a reduced age range in comparison to the subtidal populations due to the loss of plants resulting from sunshine at low tide. An increase in desiccation by 25% over a period of a year is likely to remove the population.

Intermediate High Low Low

The lower limit of Alaria esculenta populations is probably controlled by competition from other kelp species such as Laminaria hyperborea, Laminaria digitata and foliose red algae. A decrease in emergence is likely to extend the population up shore. However, an increase is emergence is likely to result in loss of plants at the upper limit of its distribution. Lost individuals are replaced by recruitment. However, the loss of plants will open the canopy and allow slow growing germling to replace adult sporophytes or the maturation of gametophytes.

No information
Intermediate High Low Low

The presence of Alaria esculenta is associated with strong wave action and tidal flow. Therefore, it is likely to be intolerant of any reduction in wave exposure and flow rate, which is likely to subject it to competition from other Laminarians e.g. Laminaria digitata.

No information
High High Moderate Moderate

Alaria esculenta germlings tolerate up to 16 °C, above which growth is inhibited (Sundene, 1962). Sundene (1962) reported that Alaria esculenta was only found on shores where the August mean seawater surface temperature is 16 °C or lower (except in areas of extreme exposure). Munda & Lüning (1977) reported that temperatures of 16 -17 °C for a few weeks were lethal to Alaria esculenta sporophytes based on field experiments with specimens transplanted to Helgoland from north Iceland. They suggested that sporophytes were likely to survive above 16 °C for some days, but that longer duration was lethal. Temperature was, therefore, considered to be the main factor controlling its distribution in Europe (Sundene, 1962; Munda & Lüning, 1977; Widdowson, 1971; Lüning, 1990). Birkett et al. (1998b) further suggest that kelp are stenothermal (intolerant of temperature change) and that upper and lower lethal limits of kelp would be between 1-2 °C above or below the normal temperature tolerances. Given its distribution in the North Atlantic and Arctic Sea is associated with the -2 °C February winter isotherm (Kraan pers. comm.). This species is likely to be intolerant of change in temperature equivalent to either benchmark. Its southern distribution is likely to be affected by the position of the mean surface temperature isotherm in Europe and therefore climatic change. The temperature tolerances of the gametophyte stages are different to those of the adult.

No information
Low High Low Low

The light penetration influences the maximum depth at which kelps species can grow. Dring (1982) reported that laminarians grow at depths at which the light levels are reduced to 1% of incident light at the surface. This varies with the turbidity of the sea water from 100 m in the Mediterranean to only 6-7 m in the silt laden German Bight. Increased turbidity due to coastal engineering, dredging, cooling water plumes been reported to result in the loss of local kelp forest. Suspended material in vicinity of sewage outfalls have been reported to result in reduced the depth range and the fewer new plants under the canopy. However, Alaria esculenta is excluded from deep waters by competition from other kelp species and is unlikely to be light limited (except Rockall populations). Although likely to be intolerant of extreme increase of light attenuation it is unlikely to be affected by a long term change of turbidity of one level on the water clarity scale.

No information
High High Moderate High

Alaria esculenta is characteristic of wave exposed coasts and favoured by increasing exposure. However, a decrease in wave exposure is likely to subject it to competition with Laminaria spp., which are likely to replace it as the dominant species as exposure decreases

No information
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive High

Plants have no known sound or vibration receptors

Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive High

Macroalgae are not known to react to the rapid changes in light and shade that would be associated with movement and have no known visual receptors.

Intermediate High Low Moderate

Alaria esculenta is adapted to exposed and very wave exposed coasts. The force of wave action in these habitats is significant source of physical abrasion, which is mitigated by the flexibility of the frond. However, abrasion, for instance from a vessel stranding or equivalent disturbance, is likely to snag, damage, and remove fronds. Therefore, an intolerance of intermediate has been recorded. Recoverability is likely to be high.

High High Moderate Moderate

Alaria esculenta is permanently attached to the substratum. If removed if can not re-attach (except in experimental conditions) and will be lost from the population. However, the population will recover fairly rapidly from the losses due the presence of germlings, large number of spores and gametophytes.

Chemical pressures

Intermediate High Low Moderate

Atrazine was lethal to young sporophytes of Laminaria hyperborea at 1 mg/l and caused growth suppression at 10 µg/l (Hopkin & Kain, 1978). Mixed detergents, herbicides (dalapon 2,4-D) were not toxic at the levels tested. Cole et al. (1999) report the following as very toxic to macrophytes: atrazine; simazine; diuron; and linuron (herbicides). It is likely therefore that Laminariales such as Alaria esculenta are intolerant of atrazine and some other herbicides. PCBs inhibited growth, gametogenesis and sporophyte recruitment in Macrocystis pyrifera at 5 µg/litre and, therefore, may have similar sub-lethal effects on Alaria esculenta
Overall, herbicides and atrazine are likely to result in loss of a proportion of the population, and an intolerance of intermediate has been recorded.

Heavy metal contamination
Intermediate High Low Moderate

Mercury and copper were found to be lethal at 50 µg/l and 100 µg/l respectively and toxic at 50 and 10 µg/ l respectively in Laminaria hyperborea. Zinc and cadmium were lethal at 5 mg/l and 10 mg/l respectively. Therefore, it is likely that Laminariales such as Alaria esculenta are intolerant of copper at benchmark level and so intolerance is assessed as intermediate. Zinc, cadmium and mercury especially are likely to cause sub-lethal effects.

Hydrocarbon contamination
Low Immediate Not sensitive Moderate

Mucilaginous slime coating on kelp fronds is thought to protect them from coatings of oil. Hydrocarbons in solution reduce photosynthesis and may be algicidal. Reduction in photosynthesis depends on the type of oil, its concentration, length of exposure, method used to prepare oil-water mixture and irradiance in experimental trials (Lobban & Harrison, 1994). The sublittoral fringe and lower eulittoral populations of Alaria esculenta would be most vulnerable to oiling. Subtidal populations being only exposed to oil emulsions or oil adsorbed to particles. Kelps are relatively insensitive to dispersants (Birkett et al. 1998). Three days exposure to 1% diesel emulsion reduced photosynthesis completely in young Macrocytsis plants. Laminaria digitata exposed to diesel oil at 130 µg/litre reduced growth by 50% in a two year experiment. No growth inhibition was noted at 30 µg/l and the plants recovered completed in oil-free conditions. Overall, laminarians such as Alaria esculenta are probably relatively tolerant of oiling and an intolerance of low has been recorded.

Radionuclide contamination
No information No information No information Not relevant

No information found.

Changes in nutrient levels
Intermediate High Low Low

All kelp species are efficient absorbers of nutrients (nitrates and phosphates) and can take up and store excess nutrients. In exposed sites the turnover of fresh seawater suggests that nutrients are continuously replenished. Eutrophication is associated with loss of perennial macrophytes, a reduction in the depth range and replacement by mussels or opportunistic algae species (Fletcher, 1996; Birkett et al., 1998). Increased nutrients may increase growth of epiphytes and plankton, resulting in reduced light penetration for photosynthesis and a subsequent reduction in the depth at which kelp could grow. However, nutrients are often added to macrophyte cultures to increase productivity. Therefore a rank of intermediate intolerance has been given to represent the likely indirect effects on turbidity and competition.

High High Moderate Low

Kelps are found in full salinity and thought to be stenohaline, i.e. intolerant of salinity change. Alaria esculenta sporophytes grew poorly at salinities below 25 psu (Sundene 1961). Although its may penetrate into the lower eulittoral in is probably highly intolerant of long term reductions in salinity (Birkett et al., 1998).

No information
No information Not relevant No information Not relevant

No information was found concerning on the effects of de-oxygenation in macrophytes.

Biological pressures

Low Immediate Not sensitive Moderate

Galls on the blade of Laminaria hyperborea and spot disease are associated with the endophyte Streblonema sp. although the causal agent is unknown (bacteria, virus or endophyte). Resultant damage to the blade and stipe may increase losses in storms. The endophyte inhibits spore production and therefore recruitment and recoverability. Streblonema sp. has been reported growing on Alaria esculenta but no further information was found (Lein et al., 1991).

Low Immediate Not sensitive Low

The Japanese kelp Undaria pinnatifida (wakame) has recently spread to the south coast of England from Brittany where it was introduced for aquaculture. It is presently restricted to man made structures but could spread in the ballast water of commercial or recreational boats and shipping. Its potential competition with other kelps in the UK, including Alaria esculenta requires further study (Birkett et al., 1998).

Intermediate High Low Low

There is considerable material on the effects of harvesting kelp species (Birkett et al. 1998; Guiry & Blunden, 1991) but little evidence concerning the effects of harvesting on Alaria esculenta populations. However, evidence from other kelp species suggest that the macrophytes can recover within 3-4 years, although the effects on the rest of the community is poorly studied. In canopy clearance experiments, Alaria esculenta may appear early in the succession suggesting that it would recover more rapidly.

Intermediate Moderate Moderate Low

Extraction of sea urchin predators such as lobsters and sea otters in Nova Scotia was suggested as a possible cause of catastrophic sea urchin infestation and loss of kelp forest. Removal of grazing species may reduce competition with urchins leading to a increase in their population and subsequent loss of kelp species. However, present evidence indicates that periodic good recruitment to the urchin population may have a greater effect. It seem likely that each of these factors influences urchin populations to different extents in different areas. These effects are poorly studied in UK populations of kelp. An increased urchin or other grazer population may increase time taken for the population to recover, since they are likely to remove young sporophytes.

Additional information

The ecophysiology and chemical tolerances of Alaria esculenta is poorly studied. Most of the information presented here is based on work on other Laminariales. The effects of pollutants on macrophytes, including Laminariales, is reviewed by Loban and Harrison (1997).

Importance review


- no data -



Importance information

  • Alaria esculenta was used in the past in both Scotland and Ireland for human consumption and fodder. It was also gathered and spread on infertile land as fertilizer (Newton, 1931; Guiry & Hession, 1996; Guiry, 1997; Guiry & Blunden, 1991).
  • It is rich in sugars, proteins, vitamins and other trace metals and contains up to 42% alginic acid (Levring et al., 1969; Indergaard & Minsaas, 1991; Lewallen & Lewallen, 1996).
  • The species can be used for a variety of purposes from human consumption and alginate production to fodder and bodycare products (Guiry & Blunden, 1991; Guiry, 1997). In North America especially, Alaria esculenta and Alaria marginata are rapidly gaining popularity in the natural foods market (Lewallen & Lewallen, 1996).
  • Alaria esculenta also has potential as a foodstuff in aquaculture for herbivorous molluscs, e.g. the abalone (Mai et al., 1996).
  • Young Alaria esculenta (the only native species in Ireland) can be used as a substitute for Undaria pinnatifida (Wakame), a very popular seaweed in Asian countries with numerous applications and a yield of over 300,000 tonnes fresh weight per annum (Nisizawa et al., 1987; Indergaard & Minsaas, 1991; Druehl, 1988; Yamanaka & Akiyama, 1993; Lewallen & Lewallen, 1996).
  • Field experiments in the Isle of Man have shown that a harvest of 9 tonnes per hectare is possible within 3 months. Alaria esculenta is a fast growing seaweed and can grow at up to 10 cm/day. Commercial potential for Alaria esculenta is considerable (Kain & Dawes 1987; Kain et al. 1990).


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This review can be cited as:

Tyler-Walters, H. 2008. Alaria esculenta Dabberlocks. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 23-03-2023]. Available from:

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Last Updated: 29/05/2008