Seagrass: The Unsung Hero of Our Coastlines
When you think about the importance of ocean conservation what springs to mind? Blue Planet…David Attenborough…turtles? Or maybe sharks, whales and coral? Chances are you’re not thinking about seagrass. Despite the ecosystem services it provides, not many people are aware of how important seagrass is to our oceans.
After spending six weeks in Akumal, Mexico this summer conducting seagrass research with Operation Wallacea, I decided it was time that we marine conservationists helped improve public awareness of seagrass. After all, we are losing it at a rate of 10,000 square meters an hour!
What is Seagrass?
Contrary to seaweed, seagrass is actually a flowering plant that grows along coastlines across the globe. Like other grasses, seagrass has leaves, roots, veins, seeds, and flowers. Supported by dense root systems, seagrass forms rich meadows that serve as food and habitat for thousands of species, such as green sea turtles, manatees and seahorses.
Why Does It Matter?
Seagrass is referred to as an ‘ecosystem service provider’ because it performs key regulatory functions within marine environments, such as:
Supporting biodiversity by providing food and habitat for a wide range of species
Stabilizing sediment by reducing the impact of waves that erode the beach and by trapping sediment within its roots.
Sequestering carbon by absorbing and storing it within its roots and the surrounding sediment.
These services have lasting impacts on the environment and the economy. Seagrass provides habitat for many commercially important fishes, stabilizes beaches for both tourism and animals like nesting sea turtles, and stores over 10% of the carbon removed from the atmosphere by the ocean each year.
My Experience In Mexico
Nestled on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula beside Half Moon Bay, Akumal Bay boasts crystal clear waters and a white sandy beach – a holidaymaker’s paradise. And that is before mentioning the resident green sea turtle population, rich seagrass meadows and extensive coral reef community. Not surprisingly over the past decade, Akumal has experienced an ever-growing influx of tourists eager to ‘swim with turtles’ and snorkel amongst the colourful reefs. However, the sheer volume of visitors to the area soon became a serious issue for the future health of the biological community. Unregulated snorkel tours meant resident sea turtles experienced high levels of stress in their feeding grounds. Meanwhile, the seagrass meadows were trampled and torn apart by snorkeller’s fins.
Whilst there has been a great deal of policymaking and government progress towards restoring this particular ecosystem, general mindfulness towards seagrass is significantly lacking. This experience opened my eyes to the threats seagrass meadows face globally.
What’s Threatening Seagrass?
Although seagrass faces numerous and varying threats worldwide, the most significant are currently:
Swimmers – using fins carelessly around and standing on seagrass beds can cause physical damage
Boats – propellers from boat traffic can rip up stretches of seagrass, leaving what are called ‘prop scars’ of bare sand behind
Excess Nutrients – runoff from coastal areas can cause large volumes of nutrients to enter the ocean. These nutrient inputs can trigger algae to bloom on the ocean surface or grow on the seagrass blades themselves, both of which starve the seagrass of light. As the seagrass dies and decays, oxygen levels and water quality decrease.
Meadows of seagrass can take up to one hundred years to recover, having major implications for the marine life and industries that rely so heavily on its healthy abundance.
What can you do?
It’s not all doom and gloom! You have already made your first step towards the protection of seagrass by reading this article. Here are some further top-tips for ways you can actively conserve this vital species:
Be Mindful – When you enter the ocean, take a look at the seafloor and be aware of where you are swimming/stepping/boating.
Skip the Fins – Swimming in a shallow area? Try your best to limit your fin use or better yet, don’t use them at all!
Take Photographs – Become a ‘Seagrass Spotter’ by taking pictures of seagrass species you see and uploading them to the Project Seagrass website at www.projectseagrass.org/.
Raise Awareness: Point out seagrass to your friends and family. Show them its beauty while explaining its importance to our oceans.
Do Some Research – Don’t let your education stop here! Have a look at the Project Seagrass website for more information. You may even find an opportunity to volunteer near you!