Project Seagrass

Advancing seagrass conservation through education, influence, research and action  


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Blue Planet, Green Seas. What's the take home message?

Posted on November 23, 2017 at 12:30 PM Comments comments (0)

By Richard 'RJ' Lilley

This weekend we are in for a treat as the BBC Blue Planet team broadcast episode 5 “Green Seas” for the first time (Sunday 26th November, BBC One, 8pm – don’t miss it!). The episode will reveal amazing footage of charismatic animals such as the Weedy Sea Dragon, the Green Sea Turtle and the Tiger Shark.

These are just a few of the enigmatic species we associate with seagrass meadows, and all of these species are showcased in this episode!

It’s now been over a year since we hosted the 12th International Seagrass Biology Workshop in Wales and it got me thinking about how far we’ve come with raising the profile of seagrass meadows… but just how far we’ve yet to go… and what we should be the ‘take home’ messages we are aiming to communicate ahead of the 13th International Seagrass Biology Workshop in Singapore next year?

I love to read the new science which seems to be being generated almost weekly at the moment by #TeamSeagrass! Personally, I am back in a secondary school classroom these days, and so don’t have the time I used too, but if I had the capacity to go, I would certainly have been at CERF 2017 this month which is took place in Providence, Rhode Island.

From my perspective both CERF 2015 in Portland, Oregon and CERF 2013 in San Diego, California were excellent conferences. They were particularly good for catching up with colleagues from around the world and getting a sneak peek into seagrass science coming hot off the press. If you are not already, I’d get following @CERFScience on Twitter ahead of CERF 2019 in Mobile, Alabama.

This month we also witnessed the big UN Climate Change Conference “COP23” in Bonn, Germany. This conference marks the next step for governments to implement the Paris Climate Change Agreement and accelerate the transformation to sustainable, resilient and climate-safe development. The Climate Conference was reported as a ‘Launch-pad for higher ambition’ but as with all international agreements, it’s a case of walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Finally, next Monday I’ll be attending The World Forum on Natural Capital hosted by the Scottish Wildlife Trust in Edinburgh. Early this year I wrote a guest blog for the trust which explains the importance of seagrass habitat, and how people can help by submitting records through Seagrass Spotter. I also wrote another guest blog for ScotLINK which focussed on the value of seagrass meadows as Natural Capital

All this activity has got me thinking once again about how we best communicate seagrass meadows. At Project Seagrass we’ve tried a variety of educational tools, including colouring in books, nursery rhymes, school workshops and videos to name just a few. However, as I'm now back in the classroom and teaching young biology students (11-18 years old), I have had to re-evaluate some of the language I’ve got accustomed to using on a day to day basis, especially amongst my academic colleagues. I'm essentially stripping seagrass science back to the VERY basics.

For several years now my ‘elevator pitch’ for seagrass has been based around 3 topics;

1) Fisheries and Food Security (seagrass meadows are a nursery habitat for many important food fish species)

2) Blue Carbon (seagrass meadows are a mega carbon sink)

3) Green Barriers (seagrass meadows protect our coastlines from wave energy).

But how do you pitch that to an 11-year-old? And is that what I should be focussing on?

Learning to communicate seagrass science at every level is something that we should all aim to improve in, but I also think it’s especially important for us to all be ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’.

If the first challenge was in getting seagrass as a ‘thing’ into the public consciousness, the next step is surely explaining why it is so damn important! Learning to communicate these three concepts is my current seagrass science communication challenge and so if anyone has got any ideas or resources to help with this, then I’m all ears!



Seagrass meadows key fishing ground globally

Posted on November 16, 2017 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Fishing in seagrass occurs around the globe; if there is seagrass (and people) there is fishing. Still, the nature and extent of fisheries in seagrass is poorly understood. It is a prerequisite for natural resource management to understand resource exploitation, therefore we decided to investigate this further.

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Seagrasses are plants that grow in the shallow ocean. The seagrass attracts many different types of animals, to live, forage, or seek shelter. These animals are collected by humans for subsistence (food), commercial and recreational purposes. Across the globe the reasons for fishing differs, it is more common to fish for recreational purposes in countries where the economic situation is better, while in countries with more challenged economies fishing for subsistence is very important.

Interestingly, because seagrasses grow in nearshore environments, almost all types of fishing gears are used. Close to shore in many areas of the world the seagrass gets exposed during spring low tides making it possible to walk in the seagrass meadows. Many people take advantage of the low tide and walk across the seagrass meadows collecting invertebrates, such as mussels and sea cucumbers, often with bare hand or simple fishing gear like sticks. This type of fishery is commonly referred to as gleaning or invertebrate harvesting and is conducted by men, women and children. Gleaning is especially common and important for people with limited resources. Static nets are also used in the intertidal zone, the area where the tides raise and fall, catching fish when the tides come in. It is very common to use hook and line and fishing nets in seagrass. Unfortunately, very destructive fishing gears such as bottom trawls, poison, dynamite, and rakes are also occasionally used.

Women and children walk across seagrass meadows at low tide in indonesia collecting resources that they can eat (Photo: Benjamin Jones)

On a global scale, anything found in the seagrass that can be eaten, sold, used as bait or sold as a curio is targeted. Globally, the most commonly targeted invertebrates in seagrass appear to be crabs and bivalves (mussels). The most commonly exploited finfish from seagrass are mullet, herring, and snapper. The target species varies greatly across the globe, for example in areas with high biodiversity (many types of species), the number of target species is often higher than in areas with low biodiversity. This pattern often corresponds with colder water fewer species, warmer water more species. Species groups that are least commonly targeted are sea cucumbers, small fish for drying, aquarium trade species, seahorses, and sharks. People access the seagrass fishing grounds by walking, swimming, snorkelling, free diving, use of canoes, scuba diving, use of sailboats and motorboats.

Crabs and bivalves appear to be the most commonly targeted invertebrates across the globe (Photo: Benjamin Jones)

Seagrass meadows receive limited management attention compared to other nearshore marine habitats. Fisheries management does not yet target seagrass. But seagrass fisheries are diverse and important to people the world over. We, authors, hope that these findings, now systematically and scientifically investigated, will highlight the importance of seagrass for fisheries around the globe.

Source: ‘Global significance of seagrass fishery activity’ by Lina Mtwana Nordlund, Richard K.F. Unsworth, Martin Gullström, Leanne C. Cullen-Unsworth. Published in Fish & Fisheries 2017.

Arial footage of a nearshore environment with patchy seagrass, in the upper left corner there is a fishing boat and along the right edge there is a long fishing net deployed (blue in color), Tanzania. Drone pilot and photo LM Nordlund.

Festivals of Seagrass: Cause for Ocean Optimism!

Posted on October 13, 2017 at 11:15 AM Comments comments (0)

By Richard 'RJ' Lilley

Over the next few days the Save Posidonia Project, Formentera celebrates the Save Posidonia Festival. The idea behind the project is to host a festival where culture, sport and environmental activities will be carried out that celebrate the fantastic contribution that the seagrass Posidonia oceanica makes to Mediterranean well-being. The festival is aimed both at marine professionals, as well as the public, and hopes to champion sustainability, so that it is not just an act or one off event, but becomes a permanent way of being.

Outputs from the festival are concrete, with the most innovative scientific and environmental projects presented at the festival (linked to the preservation of Posidonia oceanica) having the opportunity to be financed through a collection made during by Save Posidonia Project. The projects are to be evaluated by a technical committee of high national and international recognition and the objective is to involve all individuals, companies and national or international organisations in raising awareness to take action in the conservation of such a critical ecosystem to the Balearic Islands.

To participate in the festival all events must apply sustainability measures based on basic principles. Before the celebration of the event the promoters featured had to submit a plan to reduce the impact on the environment and respect the well-being of local people.

However, this isn’t the first festival of this kind, indeed the Posidonia Festival has been active in the Mediterranean for nearly 10 years. Originating in 2008 on the island of Formentera (Spain), the festival has been hosted fifteen times in six different locations (Carloforte, Formentera, Mallorca, Santa Margherita Ligure, Sitges, Tavolara). Most recently Posidonia Festival was held in Mallorca with Three days of activities on Art, Nature and Sustainable Tourism have been held in Palma and Deià. The event will be held again next year.

As an International Ecofestival of Art, Environment and Sustainable Development. The festival is a space for dissemination of knowledge and practices that promote the protection of the natural coastal environment and, at the same time, an opportunity for sustainable development, culture and tourism.

For us seeing these ‘festivals of seagrass’ taking place is incredibly positive, since it is through platforms such as this that we are able to communicate seagrass science to the public! We’ve already heard this year about how seagrass science is growing, and I have witnessed first-hand the dedication and enthusiasm of this small (but growing!) group of seagrass scientists during the 12th International Seagrass Biology Workshop that Project Seagrass hosted in north Wales last year.

Also, for me personally, I am thrilled to see the spotlight on the seagrass Posidonia oceanica since this species is critical to the sustainable provision of seafood in the Greek islands where I have made many friends. I find it deeply upsetting to witness the ecological, social and economic ramifications of degraded Posidonia oceanica meadows. The species has been estimated to be worth €190 million per year to Mediterranean fishing and the loss of this foundation species could result in both a loss of income and food security that these islands have long enjoyed.

Keep up the good work #TeamSeagrass and together we will be the change. 

How hurricanes such as Irma and Maria can devastate the Caribbean marine environment

Posted on September 25, 2017 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (0)

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By Richard K.F. UnsworthBenjamin L. Jones, Leanne Cullen-Unsworth and Lina Mtwana Nordlund


Hurricane Irma – one of the strongest on record to hit the Caribbean – recently scoured the islands leaving catastrophic damage in its wake. And just as we began to piece together the devastating and potentially long–term impacts of Irma, Hurricane Maria has now left another path of destruction. Puerto Rico, the British dependency of the Turks and Caicos, and many other Caribbean islands have suffered what have been described as “apocalyptic conditions”.

When the world talks of the tragic and devastating consequences of severe hurricanes, the focus tends to be on the land, and the people who live in affected communities. Indeed, nearly 30 people have been reported killed, while Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez has said that the hurricane has set the country back by “20 to 30 years”. We see images of toppled trees, torn off roofs and severe flooding. But marine environments can be also badly affected by hurricanes, with potential long-term effects.

The force of hurricane winds, and the resultant tides and waves are so strong that both plants and animals are ripped from the sea floor leaving lifeless rubble and sediment behind. Hurricanes have a washing machine effect: they mix up coastal sediments with knock-on effects for marine life. Suspended matter left floating in the water column limits the amount of sunlight that reaches marine habitats and so reduces growth and recovery. Meanwhile in shallow coastal environments, debris, sewage and run-off continue to flow in to the sea long after the hurricane has passed.

Human dependency on the sea


The fishery for Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) is a major source of income to many around the Caribbean.

The devastation of coastal environments, particularly seagrass meadows, can also result in long-term losses of the benefits that humans receive from them, such as fisheries support or coastal protection. Damage to these ecosystem services consequently impacts human well-being, because people can no longer rely on them for their livelihood and food supply.

Some of the most severely affected areas of the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean – Florida, Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the British Virgin Islands – all house extensive seagrass meadows. These shallow water marine habitats support valuable lobster fisheries, as well as shrimp, conch, and finfish fisheries. Seagrass also stabilises sediments and protects the white sand beaches that attract so many tourists to the region.

Previous hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons (weather events which are essentially the same but have different names depending on where the storm happens) across the globe have shown the severe negative effects they can have on these vital seagrass meadows. The seagrass plants are ripped up or buried under sediments, leading to their suffocation. The extensive associated murky water leads to widespread loss of seagrass, as was seen in the years that followed hurricane Katrina hitting the US.

Initial indications from the Everglades in Florida show that seagrass destruction in the wake of Irma is extensive, with large piles already being washed far onshore. This should ring alarm bells for Caribbean fisheries, as hurricanes Katrina and Rita led to losses in the seafood industry that reached billions of dollars. The Caribbean spiny lobster fishery business alone is worth more than US$450m, and directly employs 50,000 people. Healthy seagrass provides the best fishing grounds with the greatest revenue, and the recent hurricanes have the potential to decimate this.

Environmental impact

But this is not just about money. Seagrass loss also threatens marine biodiversity and the health of charismatic species. After a severe cyclone in Australia in 2011, turtles and dugong starved due to the damaged meadows. In addition, seagrass is a marine powerhouse, which stores vast amounts of carbon in meadow sediments. When the seagrass is removed, this carbon is released back into the environment.


Caribbean spiny lobsters depend on clams they find in seagrass.

Hurricanes have always been a part of life in tropical seas. The destruction they cause and their recovery have been observed throughout human history. What is alarming now, however, is the apparent increased frequency and intensity. The already poor state of the Caribbean marine environment restricts the ability of habitats such as seagrass meadows and coral reefs to recover from the effects of severe storms. Poor water quality and over-fishing, for example, promotes the overgrowth of algae, preventing recovery. With repeated hurricanes occurring over time periods that are insufficient for recovery to occur, this will only get worse.

The severity of hurricanes Irma and Maria are a wake up call. We need a fundamental shift in how marine environments are protected to enable long-term sustainability for the food and income they provide. Many locations in the Caribbean, for example Puerto Rico, have ineffective marine protection rules and so destructive practices continue unchecked, meaning that when a disaster does occur, the environment is unable to recover.

The ConversationAlthough local actions against climate change are difficult to achieve, it is possible to manage river catchments to improve water quality, and focus on small scale immediate actions, such as implementation of marine protected areas to limit immediate and direct damage to coastal resources. Coordinated small scale actions will ultimately help enhance the resilience of the Caribbean Sea, and make sure that the environment can better recover from any future extreme events.

Richard K.F. Unsworth, Research Officer (Marine Ecology), Swansea University; Benjamin L. Jones, Research Assistant at the Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University; Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, Research Fellow, Cardiff University, and Lina Mtwana Nordlund, Researcher in coastal environmental sciences, Stockholm University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Round The Pier Day. A weekend with Scottish Wildlife Trusts in the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area.

Posted on July 30, 2017 at 7:20 PM Comments comments (0)

By Richard ‘RJ’ Lilley

Last weekend on July 22nd, Ullapool Rotary Club put on yet another wonderful "Round The Pier Day" and Project Seagrass were invited by the Scottish Wildlife Trusts, who, thanks to Ullapool Harbour Trust and staff, have been featuring a ‘Wildlife Marquee’ as be part of the day. We were thus able to join Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Marine Conservation Society (MCSUK), RSPB Scotland and Capturing our Coast in the Wildlife Marquee. It was a super day with 1728 visitors coming onto the Pier to enjoy the festivities throughout the day! 

In Scotland Project Seagrass have been working alongside Scottish Wildlife Trusts to raise awareness of Eelgrass (Zostera marina) which is one of the trusts ‘priority species’.

In April 2016 it was hoped that our move to Scotland would herald ‘A New Dawn For Scottish Seagrass’ and we spoke then of our ambition to engage with Scotland’s coastal communities and begin the much needed process of mapping Scotland’s seagrass meadows. Community events such as this are the ‘bread and butter’ of that vision. They are also some of the best craic you can have! 

Our ambition for ‘Seagrass meadows to be saved around Scottish coasts’ has to start with people, and raising awareness of this most productive of coastal ecosystems. Having the opportunity to talk with folk about what seagrass is, where it is found and how we can map it is central to our strategy of raising awareness amongst the public. 

The Scottish Wildlife Trusts ‘Wildlife Marquee’ was a fantastic platform for engaging with people both from the local community, and those visiting the area.

On a personal note it was brilliant to see the ‘Have You Got The Bottle?’ campaign present in the tent. The organisation is campaigning for a Scottish Deposit Return System for drinks packaging (Basically you would pay a small deposit when you buy cans and bottles and get it back when they are returned. Easy.) As someone who wants to reduce litter entering our marine ecosystems then this seems to me like a super solution to a huge problem! 

Anyways, back to the seagrass! When we arrived in Scotland we wanted develop and network of like minded individuals who could help volunteer their time and energy towards our common goal. This is the Scottish Seagrass Network. This weekend SJ (of the “ThreeBeforeThirty” blog posts) and Lauren (our West of Scotland rep) joined me in Ullapool to help deliver the SEA education (Seagrass, Education and Awareness) on the Saturday and explore the Marine Protected Area on the Sunday. 

By land and by sea the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area is simply stunning! 

First, we explored Loch Broom and the Summer Isles (towards the North-East of the MPA) and then afterwards Little Loch Broom, Gruinard Bay and Loch Ewe (towards the centre and South-West of the MPA). In Gruinard Bay there is a known seagrass meadow which forms part of the Scottish Wildlife Trusts North-West Highlands Snorkel Trail which has nine sites along the north west highlands coast around Ullapool, and recently a further six sites on the Isle of Harris. 

 The Summer Isles are home to seals, seabirds and the majestic White-tailed eagle. 

If anyone is interested in assisting Project Seagrass in mapping the extent of seagrass distribution around these trails then please upload your photos via our Seagrass Spotter app and if you would like to find out more information about Scotland’s Seagrass Meadows then check out the Scottish Wildlife Trusts website.