Project Seagrass

Advancing seagrass conservation through education, influence, research and action  


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Waste Not, Want Not. Discards that could feed those in poverty

Posted on February 26, 2018 at 9:25 AM

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By Benjamin L. Jones,Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, and Richard K.F. Unsworth

At least 7.3m tons of fish (usually dead or dying) are thought to be discarded each year from marine fisheries around the world. But these estimates come mostly from observations of large-scale industrial fisheries. Limited attention has been paid to small-scale fisheries, which are assumed to have low discard rates – some estimate as little as 3.7% total catch, compared to more than 60% for some large-scale shrimp trawlers.

Small-scale or artisanal fisheries – for which there is no universal definition – are generally considered more sustainable than their large-scale industrial counterparts, but there is increasing evidence that shows this is not always the case. They employ more than 99% of the world’s 51m fishers and likely account for more than half of the total global fisheries catches.

A Sri Lankan fisherman.

One of the biggest problems for both large and small-scale fisheries around the globe is bycatch – fish and other marine organisms caught when the fishers are targeting something else. Powerful images of turtles and dolphins caught in fishing gear have caught the sympathy of the general public, but unintentional landings of fish aren’t as evocative. The truth is, however, that fish bycatch is a big issue.

Progress is being made in Europe within large-scale fisheries thanks to campaigns such as the Fish Fight. But small-scale fisheries – though there is increasing recognition outside that they are “too big to ignore” – are only just beginning to recognise the fish bycatch and discard problem.

Catch and bycatch.

Our newly published research has found that artisanal fisheries in Sri Lanka are throwing away more marine species than they keep. For every fishing trip in one of Sri Lanka’s largest lagoons, Puttalam Lagoon, fishermen could be throwing away more than 50 fish. What’s more, of the 62 species recorded in the survey, more than 80% were routinely discarded. The reasons for this practice are unclear but sometimes it is because the individual fish are too small – or they are species without a high market value.

We found that fishers targeting shrimp in particular caught more non-target species and had higher discards than those targeting fish. This is particularly worrying at a time when Sri Lankan shrimp exports are increasing, after the EU granted the country improved access to its market.

Fishers in Puttalam Lagoon discard non-target catch onshore.

Potentially 90% of the world’s fish stocks are threatened by over-fishing – when more fish are caught than the population can replace. And the “tell-tale” signs of over-fishing are now being observed in Sri Lanka and across other research sites in the Indo-Pacific region. Fishers in these locations have told us and other researchers that they are catching much less fish than they were five years ago.

But this is not just an ecological issue, it is a social one too. In this era of increasing food insecurity, our findings highlight a serious concern for Sri Lanka. This unwanted seafood could be used to provide protein for the poorest in society. Instead, we found that fish with high nutritional value is being eaten by feral dogs and birds.

Unwanted fish end up as quick and easy meals for animals.

Billions of people worldwide rely daily on fish for protein, while 50m people also rely on catching fish for work. But, if the levels of bycatch and discard continue, the livelihoods and food security of the people that depend on these fisheries will be under threat. If the problem is not managed, there won’t be any fish left in the waters.

There is one ray of hope for Sri Lanka, however. There are some small-scale fishery cooperatives which maximise long-term community benefits by dealing with the threats of fisheries mismanagement, livelihood insecurity and poverty. Communities with successful and inclusive cooperatives are better off than those without. Cooperatives have the potential to empower small-scale fishers against environmental and socioeconomic shocks, but the problem in Puttalam Lagoon is that these cooperatives are not operating across all levels of society.

Fishing cooperatives do exist, but there could be more.

If the bycatch and discards issue is going to be solved over the long-term, we need to look at combining sustainable management practices with community schemes to reduce unnecessary seafood waste all over the world. Together the millions of small-scale fishers all over the world have an immense amount of power, they just need to realise it.

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

Sewage and livestock waste is killing Britain's seagrass meadows

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 7:00 PM

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Benjamin L. Jones, Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, and Richard K.F. Unsworth,

Britain’s seagrass is a refuge for numerous species of fish, stabilises sandy beaches, and helps to lock away the carbon which humans produce. The meadows that surround the country’s coast have been called the “canaries of the sea”, due to their sensitivity to a changing environment. And like a canary in a coal mine, their health can be used as an indicator of the condition of coastal areas.

We know that the seagrass meadows surrounding the UK are in a perilous state of decline, and our recently published research has now uncovered one of the biggest causes. Our study suggests that a major driver of seagrass decline is nutrient pollution from sewage and livestock waste.

Though a new finding, it sadly comes as no surprise, given that about 40% of rivers in England and Wales are polluted with sewage.

This nutrient pollution puts the long term viability of seagrass meadows in doubt. Over-enrichment results in the suffocation of seagrass. The nutrients cause microscopic algae – called epiphytes – to smother the seagrass leaves, decreasing their ability to capture light, ultimately killing them, and destroying the habitat for fish and other marine animals.



The seagrass, Zostera marina, covered in epiphytes

In addition to this environmental impact, we found that several areas, including the Thames waterway seagrass, and a meadow in Studland Bay, Dorset – which are popular with swimmers and boaters – were considerably enriched in nutrients from sewage, livestock effluent and/or human waste. Despite this, neither location, nor any other we identified with the same problem, were classed as unsuitable for swimmers.

Outdated treatment

Clearly, we have a massive problem at hand – but water companies, farmers and the government have not done and are still not doing enough to prevent it.

Though efforts have been made to develop a British marine protected area network, and EU legislation has improved water quality in the last few decades, we have found these initiatives to be insufficient. Ten of the 11 sites we studied were in areas with designated EU protection, but most of these seagrass meadows were still polluted with nutrients derived from urban sewage and livestock waste.

So how has this happened? Analysis of the seagrass tissues points to constant sewage exposure. Old and outdated water treatment facilities are one of the likely culprits, resulting in discharges of untreated sewage during times of heavy rainfall. These are legal, but evidently the capacity of these facilities is insufficient to handle the country’s needs, and waterways are suffering because of it.

There is also the problem of livestock waste. Farming is now one of the UK’s leading causes of water pollution, and inefficiencies in storage and disposal of slurry mean that it ends up in rivers and coastal waters.

Local and national

Evidently, in addition to national and international initiatives, we need to start quickly identifying and understanding all local threats to seagrass. Especially if we are going to harmonise conservation goals with sustainable economic development. Only by finding out specifically where the nutrients affecting seagrass areas have come from can we really start to think about a targeted solution for each meadow.


Unfortunately, to date, the conservation of specific seagrass meadows is rarely based on the explicit consideration of local threats and drivers. Instead, projects focus on conserving seagrass as part of a broader plan, incorporating other specific habitats or species. While this may be effective at dealing with problems such as fisheries impacts, and is certainly a step forward for the marine environment, it doesn’t deal with the persistent and chronic problem of pollution – which can go largely unnoticed.



The ConversationPoor water quality isn’t just a problem for seagrass in the British Isles, it’s a global concern. But if we want to solve it, we must look beyond “protecting” seagrasses with legislation, and challenge the way we think about marine protection overall. Serious infrastructure changes and better management of river catchments – for example, restoration of riverbanks – are vital if we are going to develop long term waste water management plans that span both land and sea.

You can read the study, Tracking Nitrogen Source Using δ15N Reveals Human and Agricultural Drivers of Seagrass Degradation across the British Isles, here.


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

A Symphony For Scottish Seagrass

Posted on February 11, 2018 at 4:35 AM

By Rufus Sullivan

Hello Team Seagrass!

I am Rufus, a volunteer with Project Seagrass and a marine biology graduate from the University of St Andrews. Since graduating in June 2017, I have begun working for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's Connect team and the University of St Andrews' Music Centre. In this split position, I get to enjoy the benefits of working with extraordinary artists and musicians across the country to inspire babies, toddlers, children, students and adults to get more involved with the music in the community around them.

There are so many educational opportunities provided by both the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the University of St Andrews. Through its Connect programme, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra interacts with over 10,000 people each year through a vast array of activities. Both the staff and the musicians of the orchestra are extremely driven to reach new audiences all the time, not only to encourage interaction with music in the future but also, in some cases, to improve quality of life.

There are so many educational opportunities that can be provided through music. Photo Credit - Fraser Band 

The Music Centre at the University St Andrews has also led some fantastic workshops throughout local schools in Fife with some of the excellent artists that come to the town to perform. One of the University's initiatives that I have been involved in is Music Planet. This is a platform that promotes the combination of the arts with global environmental issues to enhance the power of the message that is conveyed, and also to engage new audiences.

Music is a fundamental part of human culture, irrespective of where you come from or what your background is. There aren't many people who don't enjoy listening to some form of music, either when they are travelling, working, cooking, cleaning or as any other part of their day. I believe that because of this, music has the most potential in interdisciplinary education. Using music, and getting an audience to be involved with music and music making, will help to engage them with any subject.

 Music making can help children and adults to engage with any subject. Photo Credit - Fraser Band

One of the easiest combinations that can be made is music and nature because, in nature, music is all around anyway. The natural soundscape has endless capabilities that can be tapped into to expand the possibilities of what you are teaching. In March, I will be co-leading a SCO workshop, with SCO violin Aisling O'Dea, for primary schools in Fife in conjunction with Project Seagrass and Music Planet from the University of St Andrews. A team of musicians from the orchestra and volunteers from Project Seagrass will provide a day workshop for pupils at primary schools centered around the children's story, "The Snail and the Whale" by Julia Donaldson. This excellent book tells the story of a snail that seeks to see the world and journeys across the oceans on the tail of a humpback whale. In the end, it is an endearing story of community and self-worth.

  In March, I will be co-leading a SCO workshop, with SCO violin Aisling O'Dea, for primary schools in Fife in conjunction with Project Seagrass and Music Planet from the University of St Andrews. Photo Credit - Fraser Band

The day will be centered around this story's characters and the music that was written to accompany the story. Various activities throughout the day will involve the children in the scientific background behind important environmental issues whilst providing them the opportunity to get involved with the music making themselves.

At this important tipping point, the future of the planet as we know it relies on the engagement of the public all over the world. Music can help to broaden the prospects of domestic and international education campaigns to make that change.


If you would like to follow more of my activity, I have recently started a personal challenge and campaign to reduce my impact on the environment - #Green18. In my attempt to complete this challenge, I will write regular blog posts to document my success and any obstacles I have encountered along the way.

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2018 - From Wales to the World.

Posted on January 4, 2018 at 2:25 PM

By Richard ‘RJ’ Lilley

Happy New Year Team Seagrass!

I can’t believe it’s 2018 already, and I’m sure that is a sentiment we all share!

2017 was an unbelievable year for all kinds of reasons, yet despite the crazy world we now seem to live in, for a few of us it has been largely a case of business as usual, and for the four of us as Project Seagrass, that consistency has been only been a good thing!

Now I’m not going to spend this New Year’s blog recapping on what we got up to in 2017, I’ll just point you to our previous ‘4th Year’ blog post and save the rest for future reminiscing this summer, as we celebrate the BIG ‘5th Year’ as an NGO.

We are certainly looking forward to this July!

In 2018 we have BIG aspirations, we hope to release a GLOBAL version of our SeagrassSpotter application which will make it possible to record your seagrass sightings anywhere on this precious Blue Planet.

Blue Planet. Green Seas. In 2018, we are taking Seagrass Spotter to the world.

Since its initial launch in late 2015, we’ve been tinkering with the SeagrassSpotter app, expanding its sphere of use from just our local waters, to now encompass the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Mediterranean Sea. With help from various end users, we've co-created a new version of the application that brings in elements that we, as scientists, had overlooked. Over the last 12 months the real challenge has been in developing the app for the regions around the Coral Triangle with its exceptional levels of biodiversity!

In 2018, we are also looking forward to the 13th International Seagrass Biology Workshop in Singapore. The International Seagrass Biology Workshops are official World Seagrass Association events. World Seagrass Association members facilitate the organisation of these biennial meetings and the World Seagrass Association usually provides some financial support where possible. The International Seagrass Biology Workshop series have taken place around the world since Japan in 1993 (when I was just 9 years old!) and have evolved out of recognition of the global focus of seagrass issues.

Just from looking at the locations of previous meetings it is clear that these workshops are truly international events!

ISBW12: Nant Gwrtheyrn, Wales. 17 - 23 October 2016.

ISBW11: Sanya, China. 7 - 10 November 2014.

ISBW10: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 25 - 30 November 2012.

ISBW9: Phuket–Trang, Thailand. 21 - 30 November 2010.

ISBW8: Bamfield, Canada. 31 August - 5 September 2008.

ISBW7: Zanzibar, Tanzania. 10 - 16 September 2006.

ISBW6: Townsville, Australia. 24 September - 1 October 2004.

ISBW5: Ensenada, México. 7–11 October 2002.

ISBW4: Corsica, France. 25 September - 1 October 2000.

ISBW3: Pangasinan, Philippines. 19 - 26 April 1998.

ISBW2: Rottnest Island, Australia. 25 - 29 January 1996.

ISBW1: Kominato, Japan. 24 - 26 August, 1993

Of course, the other big global event for Team Seagrass in 2018 is The 5th International Marine Conservation Congress in Kuching, Sarawak. Which is being held this summer between the 24th - 29th June. As a gentle reminder, the Call For Abstracts for this OPENS ON THE 5TH JANUARY 2018 (i.e. tomorrow!) so get submitting! 

Also, just as an FYI, you can keep up to date with the goings on of IMCC5 through their Wordpress Blog.

We hope we will be able to catch up with many of our colleagues at these events this year and we are always on the lookout for collaborations which will help catalyse positive change for our oceans. We've got a few innovative collaborations already pipelined (which I can't reveal at this point!) but we will do as soon as they are all confirmed! So please get in touch with your ideas at

Despite all the adversity of the past 12 months I feel genuinely optimistic that this year will be a BIG ONE on the journey to put our “Green Seas” on the map.

So keep up that Ocean Optimism, galvanise yourself for the year ahead, and remember what we are fighting for…

In the words of David Attenborough;

“It's our green seas, not the blue, that bring life to our oceans.”

Happy New Year!


What does the future hold for seagrass?

Posted on December 19, 2017 at 5:15 AM

By Benjamin Jones

The savannahs of the seas – our humble seagrass meadows are in peril

In its Green Seas episode, Blue Planet II introduced us to seagrass meadows. Scarcely touched upon in past media when compared to coral reefs, mangroves and even kelp forests, we learnt about the vast potential of these underwater grasslands to sequester carbon from our atmosphere through to providing habitat for charismatic marine life. But seagrass meadows are much more than this. Indeed, we would need a whole new landmark series to truly convey how vitally important these habitats are for biodiversity, people and the planet.

Seagrass meadows are home to charismatic marine life, such as eagle ray’s which utilise seagrass meadows as juveniles in the Caribbean

Our understanding of the importance of seagrass meadows is racking up. Recently we’ve discovered how seagrasses filter bacteria from coastal waters, helping to keep both people and coral reef’s healthy. We also now know that seagrass meadows are possibly the most underappreciated fishing habitats on earth, securing food supply and livelihoods. Seagrass meadows are a home, source of food and a feeding ground for numerous species of fish, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals. They protect our shores from erosion, trapping sediment in place and slowing currents and produce oxygen that we breath. They truly are the oceans hero. Not the hero our planet deserves, but the hero our planet needs. Our green knight if you will.

Women in Mozambique use fishing nets made from mosquito nets to collect fish within seagrass

Despite all this, our seagrass meadows are in peril – unacknowledged, ignored in management and never the poster child of ocean conservation.

What this has resulted in is a habitat in a state of emergency. From the shores of the UK to uninhabited islands within the Indian ocean, the tell-tale signs of man’s impact on seagrass meadows is visible. We simply don’t know how much seagrass there is globally. This also means we don’t know how much we’ve lost, bust estimates suggest that since the 1980’s we’ve lost over 35%. That equates to around a football field every hour.

A scar on the oceans seabed. A small but visible impact from a boat anchor

The threats we present to seagrass remains invisible, while we’re distracted by stories of deforestation and river pollution. Vast plumes of nutrient and sediment rich water flood onto our coastal seagrass meadows every day. Nutrients cause eutrophication, and opportunistic microscopic algae smother seagrasses, preventing the plants from obtaining food through photosynthesis.

Elevated nutrients cause microscopic algae to smother seagrass leaves, reducing their ability to absorb light

Similarly, sediment derived from coastal development and land reclamation burry the sensitive grasses, leaving nothing but a deserted wasteland. Contributing to this is the fact that fish species that might help seagrasses in their fight are gone. Exploited beyond belief and a result of seagrass meadows being ignored, time and time again when designing Marine Protected Areas.

A static fish fence, or sero, used to funnel fish into a pen so that they can be collected daily has no preference for species or size

Even in the UK, where we apparently “lead the way” in environmental protection, our seagrass meadows are in a perilous state. Despite being included within Special Areas of Conservation and Marine Conservation Zones, protection is woefully inadequate. But despite this doom and gloom there is hope for seagrass. Last year more than 100 scientists from 28 countries called for global action to protect seagrass meadows. It now seems that people are listening. 

It seems there is hope for these vital yet fragile ecosystems

For our oceans, the futures bright and the futures green. Seagrass research and conservation are growing, and new information points to people as part of the answer. Citizen science has the potential to help members of the public to discover seagrass meadows while contributing to conservation at the same time. By making seagrass meadows a familiar species, we hope to use people to leverage change. While some governments are already looking to seagrass meadows as potential blue carbon hero’s and actively working on conservation strategies the reality is most are still naively unaware. For change to happen seagrass meadows can no longer be the ugly duckling of the conservation world and need to be given the limelight they deserve.