The importance of ocean meadows
Seagrass beds have long been deemed unsightly by resorts in the Maldives, blemishes that need removing in order to maintain the archipelago’s picture-perfect reputation. Now, campaigners for the Resilient Reefs Project are rapidly changing that reputation by revealing the importance of seagrasses for local marine life and global carbon capture, as well as the positive impacts they can have on the tourism industry.
I remember my first experience of seagrass very well. It was the weekend and I needed to go for a snorkel. I find the ocean has an incredible healing power and I was looking forward to forgetting about a stressful week with a cooling dip.
At that time, I was living on a reclaimed island called Hulhumale’, a five-minute boat ride from the capital city of Male’. The island had been built to make space for an increasing population at the city centre, but in the process, it destroyed the once thriving reef that it was built on top of. I knew I had a very slim chance of seeing healthy corals. Still, I wanted to venture underwater to get up close with its inhabitants; to disappear into their world.
I surveyed the shoreline. I could just about make out dark patches in the sea on the northern side of the island, but I could tell the entry would be difficult. Determined to explore a new area, I struggled over the broken rocks and discarded construction material and finally plunged myself waist deep into the water. With plans already underway to reclaim the island further, this swim was my only chance to witness what was lay beneath the waves at this particular spot.
I started to swim. Having seen stingrays swimming in the silty lagoon from the shore, I was a little apprehensive – growing up we were told that the ocean was a dangerous place, but I had been scuba diving for a while by then and knew there was little to fear. After a few minutes I reached the dark patches I had spotted earlier. As I drew closer, I started to make out what was in front of me. It was a densely vegetated underwater meadow, a forest of long green grasses swaying back and forth in the water, dancing amongst the rays of sunlight. I was mesmerised.
I started visiting this patch more often and with each visit came a new surprise. Pairs of ribbon eels swam freely in the water flaunting their bright blues and yellows. Schools of bumphead parrotfish cruised by without taking any notice of me. Fevers of juvenile stingrays lazed on the sandy patches in the afternoon sun. Yellow coral gobies checked me out from behind branches of staghorn corals. Patches of very healthy rose-like corals glinted in the sunlight and small fish that I had never seen before on coral reefs were spotted sheltering amongst the seagrasses.
I felt like I had stumbled upon a well-kept secret. At that time, in the Maldives, seagrasses were considered ugly and both Maldivian people and tourism businesses actively destroyed them. Some resorts would cover seagrasses with tarp to suffocate them while others would remove them laboriously by hand or with tools. This didn’t sit well with me. I couldn’t understand how anyone could think these beautiful places merited being destroyed. Surely seagrasses served a purpose?
I discovered that seagrasses are flowering plants that adapted to survive under water more than 100 million years ago. Just like plants on land, seagrasses can photosynthesise and they release oxygen as a by-product. Smithsonian Institute estimates that just a hectare of seagrass can produce 100,000 litres of oxygen each day.
Seagrasses are found on all continents, except Antarctica. To date, more than 70 species of seagrasses have been recorded. Soberingly, a study by the University of California found that almost 15% of these are now considered threatened due to habitat loss and degradation, driven by rapid development and pollution. Seagrasses are thought to be one of the most rapidly declining ecosystems in the world. Scientists estimate that 29% of global seagrass has now been lost and if trends continue at the current rate, a further 20-30% could be lost in the next 100 years.
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