Ocean Optimism on the Future of Seagrass Meadows

By January 3, 2017 Ocean Solutions

When you’ve spent 14 years studying the ecology of seagrass meadows around the world then there’s only a handful of author names that come up repeatedly across the sub-disciplines of this field at global scales. The work of such authors have inspired me. To then work with them and introduce them as a plenary speaker at a conference is an honour. At the recent International Seagrass Biology Workshop in North Wales (UK) I welcomed Prof Carlos Duarte to provide an opening plenary on the topic of #oceanoptimism for seagrass. This was a talk that I’m happy to hear inspired many people, most in a positive manner some negatively, but such a response is the sign of a good talk.

Yes, we know that seagrasses are globally under threat, we know that large areas of seagrass meadows have been lost around the world, and we know the problems are complex. But this is not the whole story, far from it. The world is full of inspirational stories and evidence that seagrass conservation is moving forward in a big way. Duarte started his talk by proclaiming the aim of persuading the audience that seagrass meadows are no longer the ‘ugly duckling’ of conservation and asked us all to consider the evidence he was presenting.

He described how in the last decade seagrass conservation has progressed beyond recognition. He provided quantitative evidence how the amount of academic literature on the subject was now beginning to rival other key marine ecosystems, mentioning the much praised paper in Nature on the Zostera marina genome.

A fantastic inclusion in the talk by Duarte was the reference to a study from Denmark illustrating how many decades of hard work to improve water quality had resulted in real recovery of seagrass. This story was linked to discussion of the EU Water Framework Directive and how it was helping push an agenda to protect seagrass meadows and focus efforts on their monitoring. The discussion on Blue Carbon was of great interest as this really is taking the story of seagrass conservation to a truly new audience and bring much needed finance into seagrass conservation. Interestingly he neatly criticised the actions of the UK government related to the conservation status of seagrass in the Humber estuary but used this to really highlight the importance of the rapidly growing seagrass monitoring efforts around the world.

The talk was a great moment for us at Project Seagrass, a charity new to the marine conservation world. Carlos praised the impact of our social media work globally, and the expanding interest in this critical new front in the fight for conservation messages, including the recent media coverage of the statement from the global seagrass scientific community.

It was certainly interesting to talk to people after the plenary, with many people also inspired by the concept of finding #oceanoptimism for seagrass. Ben Jones said “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.”

I found it interesting to hear measured responses from some senior and very experienced scientists stating that the ‘elephant in the room’ remains sea level rise. They questioned whether seagrasses can withstand such changes. My personal view is that without action now that engages and inspires people we won’t have any seagrasses left to protect from sea level rise. So I feel we have to learn from and build on the successes of people around the world where positive change is happening.

By the end of the lecture by Prof Duarte, not only had I enjoyed a great discussion on seagrass conservation, but I too felt that seagrass was no longer the Ugly duckling of marine conservation. Whether seagrass has fully matured yet into the Swan remains up for debate, but I felt the talk made some very important points about how the narrative of doom and gloom can’t be the only one. The world needs to see the success of seagrass conservation as well as the problems.

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