What is seagrass?
If you have never heard of them, you are probably not alone. Seagrasses are flowering plants living in shallow waters along the coastline. Their bright green leaves form large, dense meadows under the sea. Among the 60-odd species, there are two species in the UK – dwarf eelgrass and eelgrass.
It seems curious that although seagrass has impressive credentials, its profile is so low. Even Richard Lilley (RJ), co-founder and CEO of Project Seagrass (see podcast episode here), had not heard of it, despite working previously as a biology teacher and dive instructor. His introduction to them came in Stockholm when returning to academia and studied habitats, including coral reefs and seagrass. If you share an interest in nature, you are likely to know coral reefs are in jeopardy, with bleaching incidents reported; not the case for seagrass. It may, in part, be due to it being less colourful and charismatic than coral reefs; however, pictures of it will tell you it’s pretty magical. Project Seagrass came about as RJ and his fellow academics at Swansea University recognised the need to communicate the importance of seagrass and support conservation/restoration projects.
Since the late 19th century, estimated losses are 20% of seagrass areas worldwide. Losses continue at a rate of 1-2% each year. Reasons for the loss will vary depending on location, but causal agents include:
- Pollution from sewage and livestock waste – is the major contributor to loss in the UK. For example, sewage treatment facilities are ineffective, which means heavy rain results in sewage entering rivers and other waterways.
- Use of bottom-touching gear in fishing.
- Coastal development.
- The invasion of non-native species.
Why are they important?
The sheer variety of species within nature is impressive, and each species presents us with new opportunities to look at the world.
What I mean by this, if we pay closer attention to our environment, we can appreciate what we see (hear/feel) for its very presence in the world. Everything has a right to its place in the world. In addition to appreciating it for itself, it provides ecosystem services/nature-based solutions. These are:
- Biodiversity – seagrasses are a safe habitat and food source for 1000’s of marine species, including seahorses, sea turtles and shellfish.
- Food security – they supply 20% of the world’s fisheries, ensuring 3 billion people gain vital nutrition.
- Carbon sequestration – some species are super impressive at absorbing carbon from the water; although they only occupy 0.1% of the seafloor, they are responsible for 11% of carbon buried in the ocean. They capture carbon at a greater rate than tropical forests and are consequently helpful in mitigating climate change.
- Keep oceans healthy – produce oxygen, stabilise sediment and clean seawater by filtering out pathogens, bacteria and pollution.
Communicating what seagrass is and why it’s essential will connect people (community groups and organisations) to seagrass and enable it to be better protected and instigate policy change. It is easier to gain public participation in terrestrial wildlife conservation; however, seagrass meadows are accessible as they grow in the inter-tidal area of seas; 7-9m deep, in sheltered, coastal environments. If you go wild swimming or paddleboarding, you might even spot them. Getting involved in seagrass restoration can be a first step for people to engage in marine life.
What does seagrass restoration look like?
Project Seagrass has completed ten projects in 14 countries (including the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and East Timor) involving 1000’s volunteers. The research projects aim to conduct robust scientific studies, and action projects focus on monitoring and restoration.
In some locations where seed bank exists, removing the environmental pressure, such as pollution prevention, will be sufficient for a natural rebound. In areas where seagrass has become extinct, seeds are re-planted until the point at which nature can resume without help. Here, seeds are collected, prepared and planted.
Restoration projects have their challenges. For example, planting them requires a biodegradable bag containing sand and seeds. If the sand comes from a different location to planting, a marine licence is required. This licence is intended for the construction industry but becomes a bureaucratic obstacle for seagrass restoration.
Prevention rather than cure
It seems to me that nations often react to environmental issues and treat the symptoms rather than being brave and investing in the prevention of the problem. For instance, stopping pollution is a common-sense approach and the Surfers Against Sewage organisation is campaigning on this issue. Although expensive, it will be cheaper than restoring the many species lost from pollution.
However, there is hope with continued progress from Project Seagrass and other global contributors. RJ is striving towards no net loss by 2030, achieved by improving water quality and seagrass, and be globally net-positive by 2050.