When people think of how global warming is affecting the oceans, images of bleached coral reefs, melting icebergs, and devastating storms tend to come to mind. What people don’t usually think about is the habitat destruction that comes with those things or the loss of vital ecosystems. Seagrass habitats are disappearing at a rate of roughly one football field every 30 seconds, so why isn’t anyone talking about it?
Since global temperatures began their steady rise around the time of the industrial revolution, our environment has been taking the blows as humans have continued to generate pollution and dump it into the earth, water, and sky. Species have been wiped out or pushed to the brink of extinction by our actions more than once. Currently, the outlook for seagrass in particular, is pretty grim. The unremarkable plants haven’t drawn much media attention, but their loss would be devastating in many ways. The saddest thing is that their decline is entirely the fault of humans.
Water pollution plays as much of if not more of a role in the demise of seagrass as rising oceanic temperatures. In areas where water pollution from farms, industrial sites, or municipal waste is high, seagrasses have declined rapidly over the years. On the other hand, some places in Asia have taken a pro-conservation stance. Trees have been planted to prevent erosion in some areas, and legislation has been sought to limit the amount of nutrient pollution and waste that flow into the oceans. Areas with these protections have seen a significant turnaround in the health of their marine estuaries. In some places, the seagrass growth has surpassed its previous peak, which was recorded in the 1950s.
What many people fail to realize is that the disappearance of seagrass will cost the Earth more than just an important ecological niche. Seagrass meadows are one of the ocean’s most prominent carbon dioxide sinks. The oceans themselves are estimated to store around 93% of the world’s carbon dioxide in their water, plant life, algae, and corals. Rising ocean temperatures decrease the water’s ability to hold in carbon dioxide, and the shift in underwater climate is taking out corals left and right. Combine those factors with the devastation that comes with the loss of seagrass and things don’t look pretty.
On a global average, we’re losing seagrass meadows at a rate of roughly one football field every thirty seconds. Over the course of a single day, Earth loses over 3,800 square acres of seagrass. If loss continues at this rate, we’ll see an annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide equal to a billion metric tons. For comparison, that’s nearly the same amount of carbon dioxide that Japan emits every year. Japan is the fifth-highest carbon dioxide producing country in the world. To add another source of carbon emissions on that scale would have incredibly detrimental effects on the Earth’s climate.
A Place To Call Home
As we mentioned earlier, some areas have begun concentrated efforts to protect seagrass beds and raise awareness about the loss of these vital habitats. Southeast Asia, in particular, has taken a stand against the decimation of seagrass meadows, though with a secondary motive in mind. These underwater fields are home to a very peculiar and nearly-endangered species called the dugong.
A cousin of the manatee, dugongs are native to the waters around Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and other areas between the South Pacific and Indian oceans. Dugongs aren’t the only creatures who make their homes in seagrass meadows. Fish, crabs, seabirds, and turtles also live in these habitats, and their destruction is threatening the species’ survival. Seagrass meadows are no small deal, either. Some of them are large enough to be seen from space.
Around the world, organizations have been cropping up to defend and restore these marine habitats. Although the effort required to match pace with the level of destruction is immense, these organizations aren’t going to let that get in their way. One of the actions taken by conservation groups is the cultivation and transplantation of seagrass from healthy areas to threatened areas. Much like the process of seeding coral reefs, repopulating damaged seagrass meadows can help the ecosystem regain a foothold in a given area.
In addition to encouraging the regrowth of damaged regions, conservation groups look farther inland for solutions to coastal problems. The conservation groups push for legislation to restrict what is allowed to flow into rivers and out to sea in an effort to reduce the amount of land-based pollution to coastal waters. Fertilizer from farmlands often wash into the oceans and cause a nutrient imbalance in estuaries like seagrass meadows, throwing off the balance in the ecosystem and threatening less-opportunistic species. Restricting the amount of traffic through the habitats also allows the meadows to regrow with minimal disturbance.
If the conservation efforts around the world get their way, the seagrass meadows should make a spectacular comeback. In some areas, preservation and reseeding have allowed seagrass fields to turn back the clock more than half a century. The newly-expanded healthy habitat creates ample living space for animals like dugongs, rays, crabs, and small fish to hide and thrive. Should other conservation projects have similar success, we could potentially see a full reversal to the devastation we are currently facing.
While aiding any local (or global) restoration groups is a great way to get involved, using your voice and influence to make sure that the people in charge make smart decisions about our climate is equally important. Seagrass destruction isn’t a flashy topic and it easily gets swept under the rug. Raising awareness in your community, especially if you happen to live in a coastal region, could make a world of a difference. At the end of the day, all the little steps you take to preserve the planet we live on add up to something grand. Being that little bit of change or the spark that ignites a flame of informed action in your community could just be what this planet needs to make a turnaround.