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Another step forward for seagrasses

8 June 2012

The lesser known star of the marine environment, seagrass has received a boost following support from the Darwin Initiative.

Seagrasses are a group of around 60 species of flowering plants that live submerged in shallow marine and estuarine environments. Found across the globe, they are key components of coastal and marine environments. The Darwin Initiative award will fund a project, led by Professor Susan Baker and Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth of the Sustainable Places Research Institute that will focus on seagrasses around the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Important in their own right, seagrasses also play a significant role in the productivity of coral reefs and other fisheries. Seagrass meadows additionally support charismatic species, including turtle, dugong and seahorse, and provide other essential services such as coastal protection, water filtration, and carbon sequestration.

They are currently being lost at a rate of up to two football fields per hour; this loss is roughly equal to the current rates of loss of coral reefs or tropical rainforests. Degradation of seagrass meadows has been commonly associated with increased nutrient run-off, sedimentation, damage from boats, and pesticide leaching. However, in many areas of the world seagrass meadows are increasingly threatened by over-exploitation of their productive fish and invertebrate assemblages.

Seagrasses are not as pretty as, or regarded with the same fondness we give to coral reefs, so they often get overlooked and neglected. This project will show just how important they are and help secure them on the conservation agenda.

The Turks and Caicos Islands contain some of the best quality marine habitats in the Caribbean Overseas Territories. However, knowledge of seagrass meadows, recognition of their social and ecological importance and how to manage them are lacking. With rapid coastal development in the islands, marine ecosystems are subject to increasing pressure from people that can be seen across the Caribbean.

Using a case study from Turks and Caicos, this project will engage with local scientists, stakeholders and regulators to:

  • provide evidence of the ecosystem service value of seagrass meadows
  • highlight seagrass meadows as conservation priorities for marine biodiversity protection and maintenance of food security
  • develop and demonstrate cross-sectoral, collaborative management strategies.

The case study will improve understanding of how best to promote sustainable practices in the context of local social, cultural, and economic conditions. Research will identify how and in what ways different stakeholder interests can be brought together for more effective management of seagrass meadows. Viewed as a social-ecological system, conservation strategies for seagrass meadows in Turks and Caicos will be used as a pilot for the development of a programme of research, to support policy development for seagrass protection across the Caribbean Overseas Territories.


The Darwin Initiative assists countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives under one or more of the three major biodiversity Conventions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES); and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), through the funding of collaborative projects which draw on UK biodiversity expertise.

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