Seafood consumption is both a love and a necessity for hundreds of millions of people all across the world. And the supply of seafood is a key part of maintaining food security for the whole planet. But as demand for seafood is increasing, stocks of wild fish and invertebrates (such as mussels and prawns) are declining.
A major problem is that policies and plans designed to ensure the sustainability of our fisheries almost exclusively target fishing activity. But we also need to protect the critical habitats that these fisheries also depend on.
Most species that are fished require more than one habitat to complete their lifecycles. For example Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) spends its adult life shoaling in deep water, but juveniles require more stable habitat where they can hide such as seagrass meadows. So, if we want to manage stocks for sustainability, it is essential to protect the supporting habitats of targeted species.
Seagrass meadows are a critical habitat supporting biodiversity and in turn the productivity of the world’s fisheries. Seagrass meadows are not only suitable for juvenile fish but also for larger fish of different species. As seagrass meadows occur in shallow, clear waters, they are an easily exploitable fishing habitat.
Today, we published the first quantitative global evidence on the significant roles that seagrasses play in world fisheries .
Seagrass as nursery grounds: provide a safer, less exposed, environment for eggs to be laid and young animals to find food and protection from predators as they grow. This includes commercial species such as tiger prawns, conch, Atlantic cod and white spotted spinefoot. In fact, one-fifth of the world’s most landed fish — including Atlantic Cod and Walleye Pollock benefit from the persistence of extensive seagrass meadows.
Seagrass as a fishing area: it is not just large scale fishing industries that benefit from the presence of seagrass meadows. They are an easily accessible fishing ground used by small scale artisanal and subsistence fisheries around the world.
Seagrass gleaning: seagrass is also essential habitat for gleaning activity, fishing for invertebrates such as sea cucumbers in water that is shallow enough to walk in. This is often done by women and children, and provides a source of essential protein and income for some of the most vulnerable people in tropical coastal communities. It is a common and increasingly visible activity, but it is not usually included in fishery statistics and rarely considered in resource management strategies.
Seagrass supports other fisheries: seagrass also provides trophic support to other fisheries. They do this by creating expansive areas rich in fauna, from which there are vast quantities of living material, organic matter and associated animal biomass that supports other fisheries. Seagrasses also promote the health of connected habitats (like coral reefs), and have the capacity to support whole food webs in deep sea fisheries.
Threats to seagrass, fisheries and food security: the coastal distribution of seagrass means that it is vulnerable to a multitude of land and sea derived threats. These include land runoff, coastal development, boating activity and trawling. On a global scale, seagrass is rapidly declining and when seagrass is lost associated fisheries and their stocks are likely to become compromised with profound and negative economic consequences.
Supporting policy and action is needed now!
The importance of seagrass meadows for fisheries productivity and hence food security is not reflected by the policies currently in place. Urgent action is needed if we want to continue enjoying the benefits that healthy and productive seagrass meadows provide. Fisheries management must be broadened from just targeting fishing activity to also targeting the habitats on which fisheries depend. Awareness of the role of seagrass in global fisheries production, and associated food security, must be central to policy, and major manageable threats to seagrass, such as declining water quality, must be dealt with.
Action is urgently needed to protect the worlds seagrass meadows if we are to continue to enjoy the benefits they provide.