Protecting seagrass has never been more important
Happy Seagrass Awareness Month! Environmental organizations and activists around the globe are putting a spotlight on seagrass in March, hoping to bring much-needed attention to this underappreciated ecosystem.
Seagrass meadows cover just a tiny fraction of the planet’s surface in shallow coastal waters, but punch well above their weight in terms of the crucial environmental services they provide. For starters, seagrass provides food and shelter for marine life. You may have heard about the tragic recent die-off of manatees in Florida–the animals starved because pollution killed seagrass, their food source.
Seagrass beds also fight erosion and improve water quality. Perhaps most important, like mangroves, salt marshes, and peatlands, seagrass meadows are “blue carbon” ecosystems, meaning that they capture large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and trap it in underwater soil. If undisturbed, it can stay there for centuries.
The urgency of the need to protect seagrass and other blue-carbon ecosystems was highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, released in February. As was widely reported, the report was a sobering reminder of the severity of the threat and the failure of governments to address it. But there were bits of cautious optimism. One of the report’s conclusions was that seagrass is both threatened by climate change and important in controlling it.
A growing share of Seacology’s work is focusing on protecting and restoring seagrass ecosystems.
It’s hard to know just how much carbon seagrass ecosystems are trapping, because we don’t even know the extent of seagrass meadows around the world. Seacology’s recent projects to map seagrass beds around Formentera Island in Spain and Puerto Galera and Mactan and Olango Islands in the Philippines help to address this challenge. These projects are producing maps to protect seagrass from threats such as damage from boat anchors. The high-quality data that has been gathered can also contribute to our understanding of how much healthy seagrass remains globally.
Seacology is also supporting efforts to restore lost or damaged seagrass areas. In the Pacific Northwest, we’re working with experts from the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs and the San Juan Islands Conservation District to reseed 19 acres of eelgrass, a type of seagrass critical to the local food web, in Westcott Bay. In the United Kingdom, our first project in Wales supports Project Seagrass as it restores degraded seagrass meadows and protects healthy ones through public outreach and installing new eco-friendly kinds of mooring buoys to prevent anchor damage.
Nowhere is this work more important than on islands. On islands, seagrass helps blunt the force of storms and slows the erosion of coastlines resulting from sea level rise. It supports the fisheries that many island communities depend on and the biodiversity that fuels ecotourism (as Seacology is supporting seagrass-focused projects from Greece to India). In short, healthy seagrass and other coastal wetlands are critical to ensuring islands’ long-term future.
The IPCC report points out how a changing climate and rising seas pose disproportionate risks to small islands, and assesses the impact of climate change on small islands as comparable to the damage suffered by arctic regions. The ecological, economic, and cultural impacts are all made worse by many islands’ isolation, limited resources, and relative lack of influence in global forums.
As the IPCC report points out, restoring coastal vegetation brings back not only the plants, but all of the important benefits they provide to other plants, animals, and people, now and in the future. Seacology is proud to play a role in this urgently needed work.
Read more about all of our seagrass-related projects here.