Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

There’s Now an App for Mapping Seagrass, the Oceans’ Great Carbon Sink

Oceans
Seagrass meadows are vital ecosystems for marine animals. P. Lindgren / Wikimedia Commons

The launch of an online crowdsourcing database for seagrass hopes to breathe new life into efforts to conserve the underwater flowering plants, which act as both important habitats for marine species and a major store of carbon dioxide.

Patchy mapping of seagrass meadows has hampered efforts to protect the plants (which are distinct from seaweed) from threats such as coastal development, sedimentation, coral farming and sand mining, according to Richard Unsworth, a marine biologist at Swansea University in the UK and co-founder of environmental charity Project Seagrass.


The group on June 4 launched SeagrassSpotter, a collaborative initiative that allows anyone with a camera to upload images of seagrass sightings and tagged locations from anywhere in the world. The online tool also provides species information to help ordinary users identify the seagrass they find. The platform is accessible via website or mobile app for Android and iOS.

"We're asking people visiting the coast or going out to sea—for diving, fishing, kayaking—to keep their eyes out for seagrass so that they can take a picture [to] upload to our website," Unsworth told Mongabay. "The more people that get involved the more likely we are to develop a better understanding of the world's seagrass."

Seagrasses grow in shallow coastal regions, providing a crucial nursery habitat for young fish of many species. Previous reports suggest that more than 600 species of fish in Southeast Asia alone rely on these meadows for their growth and development. Seagrass beds are also an important home for marine invertebrates, such as sea cucumbers, prawns and crabs.

Some seagrass meadows also serve to store large quantities of so-called blue carbon, the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world's oceans and coastal ecosystems. It's been estimated that seagrass meadows may be able to store more CO2 in their roots than all the world's rainforests.

The online tool SeagrassSpotter aggregates reported sightings of seagrass ecosystems from around the world to help in the effort to conserve the underwater plants.Image courtesy of SeagrassSpotter

The platform also provides information on seagrass species to help with identification.Image courtesy of SeagrassSpotter

Seagrasses are disappearing at rates that rival those of coral reefs and tropical rainforests, losing as much as 7 percent of their area each year, according to the IUCN. More than 70 species of seagrass worldwide cover a global area estimated at up to 600,000 square kilometers (about 232,000 square miles)—an area larger than the island of Madagascar.

"We increasingly know how seagrasses support biodiverse fauna but we know little about how to manage them to be resilient into the future and how to restore these systems once they've been lost," Unsworth said.

He pointed to Indonesia as an example of a seagrass hotspot, where the dearth of knowledge about the plants could potentially lead to the extinction of these underwater gardens across the archipelago.

Indonesia is widely considered an important country for seagrass conservation. In 1994, researchers estimated the country was home to 30,000 square kilometers (11,600 square miles) of seagrass, perhaps the world's largest concentration of the plant. But in June 2017, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), a government-funded research agency, put the country's seagrass cover at just 1,507 square kilometers (582 square miles).

"Having worked extensively on seagrass in Indonesia since 2003, I see that seagrass is largely not on the conservation radar," Unsworth said.

"When you visit marine parks and places with seagrass, its conservation is commonly not included or just there as a token inclusion. The focus is always on coral reefs, even though often the majority of the fishing effort is on nearshore shallow seagrass."

At least two studies by researchers in Indonesia have attempted to map seagrass meadows in certain locations, but both noted that nationwide mapping efforts were practically non-existent.

A handful of seagrass meadow sightings in Indonesia have been submitted to SeagrassSpotter. Image courtesy of SeagrassSpotter

According to Unsworth, LIPI now runs a seagrass monitoring program, but it's only on seagrass meadows in marine parks where threats aren't as prevalent and widespread as in other, unprotected, coastal regions in Indonesia.

"Funding for projects by NGOs largely ignores seagrass or when budgets are stretched, they always pull the seagrass component first," he said. "Having met with fisheries officers, park managers and local government officials over many years, my overwhelming opinion is that seagrass is not considered to be of much importance."

A search of the academic literature on coral reefs versus seagrass in Indonesia reveals that five times as many studies were published about the former in the period between 1970 and 2018, Unsworth said.

He also pointed to dataset compiled by the U.N. Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre showing huge gaps where seagrass has been mapped.

"The gaps are places where the environmental conditions suggest seagrass should be prevalent," Unsworth said. "This includes many areas where I personally have observed extensive seagrass, such as Buton, Selayar, Central Sulawesi."

The latest figures from LIPI indicate that only 40 percent of seagrass in Indonesia is considered in healthy condition. Coastal land development, sedimentation, waste pollution, coral aquaculture and sand mining are the top threats to Indonesia's seagrass.

Unsworth and his team of researchers published a report in April that indicates 90 percent of the seagrass meadows they examined in Indonesia had been extensively damaged and degraded over the past five years.

"Seagrasses in some parts of Indonesia are very well mapped, but across the nation knowledge is very poor and this comes at an important time given what we know about the losses of seagrass," he said.

Other countries, like Australia, have also reported findings of extensive seagrass meadows in seabeds deeper than 20 meters (66 feet), but "next to no deepwater seagrass has ever been documented in Indonesia," Unsworth said.

"This is probably because no one has ever looked for it," he said.

To date, SeagrassSpotter has collected more than 1,000 records of seagrass around the UK and northern Europe. Globally, the group hopes to obtain at least 100,000 records by engaging people from around the world to collect data about seagrass in their locality. All collected data will be freely available to the public.

"If people don't know where seagrass is and why it's of value," Unsworth said, "then they won't take action to preserve it."

Healthy seagrass on the ocean floor. Seagrass provides an important source of income and food for communities around the world, but its importance often goes unnoticed. Image courtesy of Benjamin Jones / Project Seagrass

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Michael Svoboda

The enduring pandemic will make conventional forms of travel difficult if not impossible this summer. As a result, many will consider virtual alternatives for their vacations, including one of the oldest forms of virtual reality – books.

Read More Show Less
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Thursday accused NOAA of ignoring its own scientists' findings about the endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale. Lauren Packard / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Julia Conley

As the North Atlantic right whale was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of critically endangered species Thursday, environmental protection groups accusing the U.S. government of bowing to fishing and fossil fuel industry pressure to downplay the threat and failing to enact common-sense restrictions to protect the animals.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Beth Ann Mayer

Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.

Read More Show Less
Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. JustTulsa / CC BY 2.0

Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

Read More Show Less
The Firefly Watch project is among the options for aspiring citizen scientists to join. Mike Lewinski / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tiffany Means

Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.

Read More Show Less
People sit at the bar of a restaurant in Austin, Texas, on June 26, 2020. Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to be closed by noon on June 26 and for restaurants to be reduced to 50% occupancy. Coronavirus cases in Texas spiked after being one of the first states to begin reopening. SERGIO FLORES / AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next, the World Health Organization acknowledged on Thursday, as The New York Times reported. The announcement came just days after 239 scientists wrote a letter urging the WHO to consider that the novel coronavirus is lingering in indoor spaces and infecting people, as EcoWatch reported.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A never-before-documented frog species has been discovered in the Peruvian highlands and named Phrynopus remotum. Germán Chávez

By Angela Nicoletti

The eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in central Perú are among the most remote places in the world.

Read More Show Less