Did you ever imagine that such an unassuming ecosystem could be so essential to life on this planet?
Humans have long been enamored with kelp beds and coral reefs. However, conservationists and marine biologists are now expanding their curiosity (and resources) to seagrass, as we begin to wake up to the important role they play in regulating the global climate and supporting ocean life.
These amazing underwater prairies ring six out of seven continents (excluding Antarctica). Seagrass meadows filter out pollutants and sediment (services worth nearly $11,000 per acre of seagrass), and provide critical fish habitat. They also produce massive amounts of oxygen, which helps explain their ability to kill underwater pathogens.
Perhaps most importantly however, these marine meadows act as an extraordinary carbon sink as well, trapping an estimated nine billion tons of carbon underground around the world.
Seagrass is really an amazing species of plant—capable of photosynthesizing in low light, building up underwater soils (a carbon sink) and providing habitat for everything from manatees to salmon. A University of Cambridge study in 2014 estimated that seagrass adds about $87,000 of value (per acre) to the fishing industry alone.
Unfortunately, seagrass is threatened by both pollution and climate change. Already, nearly a third of the world’s seagrass meadows have disappeared, and their rate of disappearance is only accelerating.
Warmer ocean temperatures cause seagrass to lose oxygen through their leaves, robbing seagrass roots of oxygen and leaving them susceptible to toxic sediments. Unfortunately, dirty, cloudy water only makes the situation worse, reducing the plants’ ability to photosynthesize and causing them to produce even less protective oxygen.
So, are you convinced yet?
Seagrass is not only wildly important—it needs our help.
While it’s easy to pay attention to the beautiful ecosystems we can see, environmentalism must expand and include the less visible, and perhaps less visually stunning areas as well. As we embrace the fact that our lives don’t just hang in balance with the rainforest and the polar ice caps, but also with those humble grasses waving just beyond the shoreline, we just might find the hope we need to begin to turn this planet around.
So next time you’re by the ocean, go see if you can spot some seagrass. Research local organizations, and see if they’re doing anything to help stop toxic runoff into the oceans. Pay attention to what’s happening in our seaside communities, and help resist projects that disrupt the ocean floor. Stand up for the little species that support us.
We’ve got work to do.