Scientists find reasons to be optimistic about global marine conservation

At a gathering of over 170 marine scientists in north Wales last week, scientists presented a whole series of reasons why we should be optimistic about the future of marine conservation around the globe.

The plight of our global oceans is arguably one of the greatest challenges for humanity during the next century. Whilst it is critically important to understand their plight it is vital that we also understand how conservation solutions are being developed around the world. Scientists need to highlight the success stories of conservation in order to empower people to further engage with marine conservation. The world needs stories of hope as well as stories of ‘doom and gloom’ to inspire and motivate a new generation of conservation scientists and practitioners. No marine habitat is more needing of those stories of hope than seagrass meadows, a globally expansive habitat of fundamental importance.

Workshops on the restoration of seagrass meadows presented examples of improved and more reliable methods for enhancing our marine environment. Discussions on how to make seagrass meadows more resilient to environment change illustrated how actions to improve coastal water quality have shown improvements for productive seagrass.

Seagrass

‌Dr Richard Unsworth (Swansea University) together with Professor Carlos Duarte (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) ran a specific session that brought together information from around the globe of where we are seeing improvements in the understanding and management of seagrass meadows. At a time of unprecedented threats to our oceans reference was made throughout the workshop to expanding intertidal seagrass meadows in the Wadden Zee, initiatives to develop environmentally sensitive moorings systems for boats, and community projects in Japan that have resulted in real positive differences to the state of coastal seas.

“Participants at the workshop highlighted many reasons to be optimistic, telling stories of real action being taken to improve our oceans. Such stories ranged from a lone individual replanting seagrass in Western Australia to measures the EU has taken to use seagrass meadows as sentinels of the marine environment” said Dr Unsworth.

In the build up to the workshop scientists at Swansea University led the release of a statement (now signed by over 160 scientists from around the world) of describing how action needs to be taken to save the worlds seagrass. Importantly the workshop demonstrated that taking small actions can result in real change and actual environmental renewal.

The signatories of the statement are from over 40 different countries and include world-renowned marine biologists Professoressor Carlos Duarte, director of the Red Sea Research Center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and Professor Jeanine Olsen, chair of the Genomics Research in Ecology and Evolution in Nature (GREEN) group at the University of Groningen.

The statement highlights the global importance of seagrass meadows, which are comprised of underwater flowering plants rather than the more common seaweed. These “powerhouses of the sea create life in otherwise muddy environments”. The statement describes how the ocean prairies are “key fishing grounds” and that they are “one of the most efficient oceanic stores of carbon on earth”, the latter meaning that they play a crucial role in preventing human emissions of carbon dioxide contributing to damaging climate change.

The motive for the statements release is that “The loss of seagrass from common human induced impacts such as poor water quality, coastal development, and destructive fishing leads in turn to the loss of most of the fish and invertebrate populations that they support” said Ben Jones, founding director of Project Seagrass (a UK charity working to conserve the world’s seagrass) and a graduate of Swansea University (now working at Cardiff University). “Seagrass creates amazing habitat for a plethora of fish and invertebrates species key to fisheries, protecting this value into the future is critical” urged Dr Unsworth.

With many coastal dwelling peoples around the world having livelihoods heavily linked to seagrass meadows their trajectory toward extinction has serious implications. “The loss of seagrass puts the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people at risk and exposes many people to increasing levels of poverty,” warn the signatories.

Keen, however, to emphasise that humans are also the answer to the travails of seagrass, the marine experts raise hope through using their call to also bring attention to examples of where seagrass meadows have been protected and restored. “In places such as Tampa Bay in Florida and the Chesapeake Bay, also in the USA, we’ve seen genuine large scale seagrass recovery. There is also a willingness of governments to include seagrass conservation in ways to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions,” they hopefully conclude.

The 12th International Seagrass Biology Workshop was run at Nant Gwrytheyrn in Gwynedd and was led by a team of 10 scientists from Swansea University, Cardiff University and Project Seagrass and was titled ‘Securing a future for seagrass’. A video of the first plenary speaker (Professor Carlos Duarte) can be viewed here.