Seagrass meadows remain 'forgotten' in conservation debate

Bubbling seagrass, Greeg Island, Australia

An estimated one billion people live within 50km of a seagrass meadow

Every hour, an area of seagrass the size of two football pitches is lost. The rate of loss is equal to that occurring in tropical rainforests and on coral reefs yet it receives a fraction of the attention

Seagrass can be found in every continent except for Antarctica, usually in shallow coastal regions, as they need light to survive. Their optimal depth is sub-tidal down to 15 metres although some can live down to 60 metres in clear waters such as the Indo-Pacific.

Whilst there are widespread concerns about the degradation of coastal and ocean ecosystems from human activities, marine ecologists say 'uncharismatic' habitats like seagrass meadows are often forgotten or marginalised in conservation agendas.

'People don't necessarily understand its importance - it doesn't have the charismatic appeal. For example, in the tropical oceans it doesn't compare in colour to coral reef. But it actually has a huge impact on the productivity and biodiversity of the coral reef and marine ecosystem,' says Richard Unsworth, a marine expert working on the SEACAMS project at Swansea University.
Seagrass meadows provide food and habitat for fish, playing a vital role in the marine food chain as well as being home to endangered species like dugongs and green turtles.

Recent research has highlighted the large 'blue carbon' role seagrass has in absorbing carbon and locking it away into sediment. On a local scale, the absorption of carbon dioxide may also mitigate the negative effects of ocean acidification on coral growth.

Seagrass can help trap pollutants and act as a 'natural water filter' but too many nutrients, such as from sewage run-off can lead to its degradation as it can block sunlight or encourage algae growth. Other significant threats include; sand dredging projects, coastal development, extreme weather events and rising sea temperatures.

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