Project Seagrass

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Understanding Wales past oceans to inspire their biodiverse future

Dr Richard Unsworth, Project Seagrass and Swansea University The seas around Wales have so much potential. They offer rich biodiversity hidden within productive lush habitats such as kelp forests, salt marshes and seagrass meadows. Life in these waters can be so ingenious that it bioengineers its own environment. Out of seemingly nothing, reefs and seagrass appear that can protect our coast and filter our water. Deepwater horse mussels that bring barren depths to life. All these habitats are teaming with life. We have Mearl beds too that are like the coral reefs of the Atlantic. We have whales, we have dolphins and we can even see turtles feeding on summertime jellyfish blooms. We also have sharks and seabirds a plenty. We potentially have it all. The Celtic seas around Wales used to support the food supply and livelihoods of the people of our nation, but this is no longer the case. Scratching the surface of history and it doesn’t take much to see this glorious past that we’ve allowed to be washed away. Our industrial past of mining and heavy industry as well as our overfishing and gross mismanagement of land have left a terrible decimation. Visiting Penllyn earlier this summer I was reminded of the Three herrings, the symbol of Nefyn – Nefyn herrings used to be sold as a high value product to the wealthy in Manchester and there used to be an abundant Fishery for the now mostly extinct crayfish. But these fisheries have long since disappeared. In South Wales, 1000’s of boats going out daily into Swansea bay collected Oysters a plenty, these provided jobs, food and a way of life. And now all that is left of this abundance of sea life in Oystermouth and the Mumbles are stories and tales. Wales is left with folklore rather than food. It’s also fascinating to consider what habitats and species would have populated our South Wales coastline before we build ports, reclaimed vast swaths of the intertidal and flooded coastal embayments with barrages. These areas were prime for biodiverse habitats. Sat in a Laugharne Pub soaking up the atmosphere of Dylan Thomas you see pictures from the 1930’s of a 3m long sea monster proudly held by a group of men. This picture isn’t from Cambodia on one of Jeremy Wades ‘ Sea Monster’ series, but it’s a sturgeon caught in the Taf Estuary in what’s now the Carmarthen bay and rivers special area of conservation. Our coastal environments were once full of such diverse and abundant life that is now largely locally extinct. A short trip onto the delightful town Tenby, or as it was locally known ‘Dinbych Y Pysgod’ or ‘Fort of the fishes’ you readily see signs everywhere of historically productive fisheries that are now largely lifeless. Fishermen on the beach get excited when they catch a small plaice, and my son out fishing with his grandparents fails to even catch the odd Mackeral. Hardly the abundance that led to the development of a thriving town and furnished the wallets of the monks of Caldey. Just how did we as a nation let this decline happen. How can we possibly pass this travesty of an environment to the next generation without doing something drastic? Moving west from Tenby we find the remnants of a once vast and abundant fishing community on the shores of the Cleddau. Yes, the waters of Milford Haven were over fished, but we also allowed heavy industry, poor land management and inappropriate farming activity to destroy the very habitats that had sat there for 10’s of thousands of years and supported the fisheries. We’ve allowed this to continue with the ongoing pollution of the sea from the activities of the land. Milford Haven waterway was once home to Wales last major Mearl bed, but that gave way to the pursuit of ever bigger infrastructure for oil and gas. As we heat the waters of the Cleddau with power station outfalls and subject the area to ever-increasing nutrient loads, the delicate seagrass continues to struggle as it increasingly respires without enough energy to keep going. As catchments and coasts degrade the place becomes ever more awash with mobile sand and mud particles further damaging the environment. Divers in the 1970’s tell of clear waters at the Neyland bridge in Milford Haven at sites that would now be too plagued with sediment and are too murky to even consider for a dive. Wales, what have we done? How did this happen? Now is not the time for a blame game, we need action instead. The Welsh Government has declared a biodiversity emergency as well a climate emergency. Time is of the essence and there is much to do. We need to take significant action to enable our marine environment to once again support our communities, our livelihoods, our well-being and most of all our planetary support. Last week we saw the launch of the Welsh Government Biodiversity Deep Dive recommendations of how the nation will start to repair its depleted habitats and associated biodiversity. A key part of these recommendations are a series of urgent actions required for the marine environment. I was part of the working group of biodiversity experts tasked with creating these recommendations. It’s fantastic to see the fresh impetus for the government to take action on establishing marine protected areas and fulfil their election promise to invest in the restoration of seagrass and salt marsh. Politics aside, I was proud to be working with a minister and government who want to do the right thing, who want to actively reverse biodiversity loss and who understand the precarious environmental tight rope that we’re currently walking and the history of political promises but limited change. What we now need is action, we need the Welsh Government on the back of a terrible political climate from central government to push their prosed recommendations and agenda forward. We need the Marine Protected Area plans to move out from their covers and

Learning to protect seagrass in the heart of the Coral triangle.

Indonesia is at the heart of the Coral Triangle, an area characterised by having the World’s highest marine biodiversity. With over 17000 islands, 51,00km2 of coral reef and at least 30000 km2 of seagrass its marine life is extensive and spectacular. But with a growing population, rapidly expanding GDP, and its status as the world’s 2nd biggest fisheries producer, the marine ecosystems of Indonesia are under increasing threat. These threats are not just critical for the economy but also for the maintenance of food security of the nation’s 250 million people. This is why we’re working on a project to help find ways to protect some of the nation’s important habitat. Over the last two weeks I’ve been privileged to experience the marine environment of Indonesia. I’ve been setting up the Indonesian node of a SE Asian wide project to examine how seagrass meadows contribute to food security in case study locations, and to determine at these sites how this security is threatened by widespread anthropogenic threats to the habitat. The work is a collaboration between Cardiff University, Swansea University and a series of local partners in Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. In Indonesia we have some fantastic collaborators who are helping us run great projects in Selayar and the Wakatobi, two areas of South Sulawesi. Dr Rohani Abbo Rappe, Prof Jamal Jompa and Dr Yayu LaNafie are our partners at Universitas Hasanuddin in Makassar for the work in Selayar. This is where my recent trip focussed its attention. Rohani and Yayu are both seagrass researchers widely experienced in the ecology of Indonesian seagrass meadows and have just completed annual seagrass assessments in Selayar for the CoreMap CTI programme. Research trips to Indonesia seldom start easily, I spent my first few days in the worsening smog of Jakarta arranging a research visa with the help of an old colleague of mine SteveO from my Opwall days. Jakarta is interesting, but it’s crazy, and not my kind of place, I spent two evenings trying to observe the Blood Red Moon, but got thoroughly defeated by the thick smog of Java. Fortunately the visa process was smooth, and the Indonesian research department granted me a Kitas visa quite rapidly. I was then off to Makassar and then onto Selayar to spend time developing our new project with researchers at UNHAS. Selayar is the main island of the Selayar islands archipelago, it is bordered on the west by extensive fringing reefs, mangroves and seagrasses that create an enormous potential fishing area. The east of the island is highly exposed and the sea floor rapidly descends to deep waters. On the western side we met with a great team of research assistants assembled by UNHAS to help run the field work for the project. I was supplied with a host of fabulous local food as we held a series of training sessions teaching team members how to conduct quantitative fisheries landings surveys, run household interviews and lead focus group discussions with community groups. This involved lots of early very mornings heading down to the fish landing docks after the local morning call to prayer. We surveyed a series of lift nets boats, fish fence landings and gill net landings in addition to some line fishing boats and some trap fishers. Although the pelagic fish landings of anchovy caught with large light based lift nets were huge, the landings from the seagrass based fisheries (gill nets, traps and fish fences (sero)) were all poor. Lots of juvenile fish, discards and poor CPUE. Fish landings from the shallow water seagrass fisheries of Selayar were poor. We can only hope that this is a seasonal phenomenon. Our trial interviews started to reveal a coastal seascape under widespread threat and increasing pressure. Many people described declining catches, loss of seagrass, changes in species catch and a general deterioration of the marine environment. The seagrasses of Selayar were formerly the main point of spat collection for the region for extensive Prawns and Milkfish aquaculture, but these are no longer present. We also heard descriptions of the disappearance of otters, formerly seen in seagrass collecting Urchins. Seagrass meadows of Selayar contain up to 11 species and are dominated by Enhalus acoroides and Thalassia hemprichii. It was nice to hear many references to recent dugong sightings but overall I felt that the marine environment of Selayar was in need of help. Our suspicions were confirmed as we set about collecting BRUV data of motile fauna in seagrass up and down the coast. Although we saw a large Barramundi and few large shoals of Rabbitfish, the seagrasses did not contain an abundance of fish, suggesting a system under high exploitation pressure. Looking around the Island of Selayar it’s easy to see the vast expanse of permanent fixed gear fish fences that give fish living in the shallow waters very little chance of survival, particularly the juvenile fish that need to grow and develop to form the next generation of spawning adults. BRUV footage of octopus foraging in seagrass in Selayer, SW Sulawesi, Indonesia It was a great trip to Selayar and I left the Island feeling like we had a good research team ready to collect sound data. I also felt that our project was timely as the seagrasses of Selayar need some assistance. Selayar is an example of a site slowly losing its ecosystem resilience. Our recently published paper on this topic shows how the loss of a diverse food web and the cumulative pressures of localised disturbance and decreasing water quality mean that seagrass is more susceptible to the impacts of climate change. As we see the increasing daily impacts of a very large and intense scale El Nino event across the Indo-pacific region I hope that the seagrasses of the region will survive. Hopefully the results of our project will contribute to ensuring this survival into the future. Working with UNHAS to train local research assistants to conduct household interviews. Fantastic collaboration with researchers at Universitas Hasanuddin (UNHAS) in Makassar.