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Mobilizing communities to protect seagrass in the Philippines

July 27, 2021

The Verde Island Passage, a narrow waterway between the Philippine Islands of Luzon and Mindoro, is widely considered to be the world center of marine biodiversity. At the heart of the Coral Triangle, the passage is home to countless species of fish, invertebrates, and other ocean life. A 2015 survey found more than 100 species previously not known to live there. Some were entirely new to science.

The area’s abundant coral reefs have been widely recognized as a priority by conservationists. But another foundational component of this rich underwater ecosystem — seagrass — has not enjoyed the same level of attention. Until now.

Seacology’s new Philippine Seagrass Project, based in the community of Puerto Galera on the northern tip of Mindoro, is a multifaceted effort to protect the passage’s threatened seagrass meadows.

Seagrass plays a vital role in marine ecology, providing food for sea turtles and dugongs, improving water quality, and serving as shelter for small marine animals. And like mangroves and peat bogs, it sequesters enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, making it extremely important in the fight against climate change. In communities like Puerto Galera, which rely heavily on scuba diving and other tourism, the marine life that seagrass supports is crucial to the local economy.

Boat anchors, dragged across the ocean floor, have destroyed seagrass around the world. Anchor damage is an acute threat in the Verde Island Passage, which is a busy route for commercial and recreational vessels. A new phone app will tell boat captains exactly where seagrass is, so they can avoid dropping anchor over it. The first step was mapping the seagrass beds around Puerto Galera, which our local partners did earlier this year, building on the success of a similar Seacology project in Spain. The GPS data they collected will be uploaded to the app. Local governments will also use these data to design policies to protect seagrass.

Seagrass can’t thrive, though, unless local people know why it’s important, how it’s threatened, and how they can protect it. According to Seacology Field Representative Ferdie Marcelo, not everyone has had the opportunity to learn about seagrass.

“Seagrasses are sometimes used to weave baskets and other products, and that is how some judge their usefulness,” explains Marcelo. “But the value of our seagrass beds should not be so limited. Their biggest value is how they enrich the diversity and population of marine life.”

To help spread the word, this project also funds a wide-ranging informational campaign. Our local partners distributed posters in Puerto Galera, and conducted trainings for local conservationists. A social media campaign has already reached thousands of people in the area (check it out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and will be key to promoting the app once it becomes available. Local media have also taken notice of the project.

Puerto Galera is only the beginning for the Philippine Seagrass Project. Many communities in the Philippines have much to gain from healthy seagrass — and much to lose if it vanishes. With widely available technology and leadership from local boaters and conservationists, we want to protect much more of this bountiful underwater ecosystem.

A poster distributed around Puerto Galera informs boaters and other visitors about the benefits of and threats to seagrass.

The seagrass around Puerto Galera was mapped using GPS technology, generating data will help boaters avoid damaging seagrass beds.