By Dr Jillian Ooi
The world is losing seagrass at an alarming rate – with two football fields of seagrass lost every hour. Even this is an underestimate because there are many areas of seagrass that haven’t been documented and accounted for.
Take Malaysia as an example – we have mapped and documented only 49 square kilometres of seagrass ecosystems, which is quite preposterous when we have 4,675 km of coastline! The problem is that we simply do not know enough about the state of seagrass ecosystems in Malaysia, and we lack even a basic nationwide map of seagrass that shows the distribution and extent of this ecosystem.
If we do not plug this knowledge gap about seagrass, we stand to lose a lot more than “just grass”. Seagrass is a critical component of coastal ecosystems and supports a wide variety of marine life. It acts as a nursery habitat for many commercially important fish species, including snapper, grouper, and shrimp, and helps to maintain healthy fish populations.
Seagrass also helps to prevent coastal erosion by trapping sediments and buffering the impact of waves and currents. Additionally, it plays a significant role in supporting recreational activities such as boating, swimming, and fishing, which are important to coastal economies. It filters and purifies water, halving the amount of disease-causing bacteria in seawater, and helps regulate world climate.
During our trips to Sungai Johor, we witnessed indigenous populations trekking through water up to their chins to reach the seagrass meadow in order to stock up on food. Villagers in Sungai Johor lamented the loss of seagrass due to pollution, with one headman asking for help to revive their ailing seagrass meadow so that he may relive his childhood memories of thriving fish populations in healthy seagrass.
“Why do scientists only study something when it is gone?” was one particularly vexing question we received, to which we had no answer.
This seagrass emergency compelled the United Nations, following a resolution by Sri Lanka, to declare a formal World Seagrass Day. For the first time, the humble seagrass will get its own day of celebration and recognition on 1st March 2023, with events and activities taking place around the world to raise awareness about the critical importance of seagrass meadows.
Let’s encourage everyone to participate in this important event and learn about the vital role that seagrass plays in the health of our oceans and the planet as a whole. So go ahead, make it your pledge on this first World Seagrass Day to learn about the humble but mighty seagrass and to go out and explore the seagrass ecosystems nearest to you!
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Science Media Centre Malaysia
Dr Jillian Ooi is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Malaya, and a lead researcher at the Team Sea Habitats lab. She enjoys watching seagrass grow in the hope to understand what makes it tick, its value to humanity, and how to conserve it.
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