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Ecosystems: Seagrass Planting Leads to Progress

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Kira Lomas reports on the 20-year success of a seagrass restoration project, shaping the future maintenance of marine ecosystems.

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Seagrass are the only flowering plant able to survive underwater, growing densely in sediment on the sea floor, creating an ecosystem known as seagrass beds. These diverse plant species play an important role in maintaining the health of our oceans and provide a sheltered home to a variety of marine life.

Yet, their endangered status means they have suffered huge declines globally; 35% of seagrasses have been lost or degraded over the last 40 years. As a result, scientists are pioneering new experiments to help restore these underwater meadows.



The Sea Grass Restoration Project

Over the past 20 years, supported by researchers and volunteers, more than 70 million eelgrass seeds have been spread across a 200-hectare plot off the Southern end of Virginia’s shore. Growing substantially to cover 3,600 hectares on the formerly cleared state, the team have observed the restoration process from birth to adulthood, laying the foundations of knowledge for marine preservation across the world.

The most remarkable discoveries of the project concern seagrass’ relationship with climate change. Accumulating over time, seagrass can capture carbon 35 times faster than tropical rainforests, which is stored entirely in the soils, due to their slow decomposition rate.

Researchers state that the success of this project provides a glimmer of hope for the future of climate issues and ecosystem function. The study also proves that marine habitats can be restored in a self-sustaining way, with seagrass beds now sequestering 3,000 metric tons of carbon per year.



The Importance of Seagrass Conservation

Being among the world’s most threatened ecosystems, seagrass faces numerous threats to their ability to store carbon. In face of coastal development, rising sea temperatures and storm and flooding events, protecting these coastal habitats is essential for mitigating climate change.

To counter these threats, seagrass perform numerous functions. Habitat complexity is an important feature of seagrass beds, providing both food and a nursery habitats for several species of fish. Their dense network of roots provides refuge to endangered invertebrates, simultaneously deterring predators digging through to catch their prey.


Sediment stabilisation is acknowledged as another important ecosystem function of seagrass. Extending both horizontally and vertically, the extensive root system helps to diminish the force of currents to prevent the seabed from potentially smothering coral reefs or being washed away in the event of a sea storm.

Besides being beneficial for mitigating climate change, researchers hope that the seagrass restoration project will be an important system for understanding how coastal habitats work as well as offering a blueprint for reviving and strengthening other devastated marine ecosystems.


 

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