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What is Seagrass and Why Is It Important?

Touted as one of the most important natural solutions to the global fight against climate change, seagrass is more vital than ever before. But what exactly is seagrass? And what role does it have to play in the future of our planet?

Here, we’ll take a closer look at seagrass, defining what it is, where it grows, and its importance in the fight against climate change. We’ll also explore the animals that rely on seagrass as their preferred marine habitat, along with the ongoing efforts to protect seagrass from the growing threat posed by increased human disturbance.

What is seagrass?

Seagrass is a marine plant that can survive and flower when submerged in saltwater. It’s the only plant in the world that grows and flowers in marine environments, making it an invaluable natural resource in helping to capture and store carbon dioxide in our seas and oceans.

Biologists believe there are around 60 species of seagrasses, although more varieties may remain unclassified. Remarkably, these marine plants are thought to have emerged over 70 million years ago, evolving from terrestrial plants to survive at the bottom of the ocean.

Like all plants, seagrasses photosynthesise, so they’re most commonly found in shallower waters with plenty of sunlight. Indeed, aside from living in the sea, these plants are all but the same as their terrestrial counterparts – which means they play a role in removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere too.

How does seagrass help the environment?

When we say that seagrasses are invaluable in the fight against climate change, we seriously mean it. These marine plants are critical to the survival of our planet, which is why so many biologists are devoting their working lives to protecting them.

So, how exactly do seagrasses help the environment? And why are they such an invaluable resource in helping to combat climate change?

Let’s take a look…

Carbon capture

If you thought tropical rainforests were good at capturing carbon dioxide, wait until you hear about seagrass. These marine plants reputably capture carbon up to 35 times faster than mature rainforests, which is a lot considering that the world’s tropical rainforests collectively absorb around 7.6 billion metric tonnes of carbon each year.

Such is the carbon-consuming capabilities of seagrass that these plants are thought to remove between 10-15% of all carbon dioxide from our seas and oceans. That’s despite covering just 0.1% of the seafloor, which gives you an idea of their immense carbon-reducing powers.

Coastal erosion reduction

Since seagrasses tend to live in shallow water close to coastlines, they provide a natural defence against coastal erosion. Seagrass helps to absorb the power of destructive waves thanks to their leaves which can soften the force of the waves, protecting vulnerable stretches of coast and the animals that live there (including, of course, us humans).

Pollution absorption

It turns out seagrass is a real triple threat when it comes to giving marine and coastal habitats a helping hand. This superpowered plant is awesome at absorbing carbon dioxide and protecting vulnerable coastlines, as well as cleaning up pollutants that threaten marine habitats and water quality. Seagrass can achieve this by trapping fine particles and carbon-rich sediments, improving water quality.

Of course, there’s a delicate balance to strike here, and seagrasses aren’t impervious to exposure to pollutants in our seas and oceans. Algal blooms caused by run-offs from farmland, for example, can cut off the light and nutrients that seagrass needs to grow, suffocating the plants and causing widespread die-back.

How to protect seagrass

While biologists acknowledge that seagrass is one of the best natural resources we have in the fight against climate change, the reality is that these marine plants are under threat.

It’s thought that we lose up to two football pitches worth of seagrass every hour as a direct result of climate change and water pollution, with the plants now on the brink of total destruction in many seas and oceans around the world.

Here in the UK, scientists estimate that around 92% of native seagrasses have disappeared over the last century. That’s a startling statistic when you consider that seagrass meadows around our coasts provide a habitat for a rich variety of life – from seals and dogfish to octopuses and spawns of cod and plaice.

The good news is that work is underway to protect and replace seagrass meadows around the world. Organisations like the WWF and its partners are spearheading a global operation to safeguard seagrasses, with an ambition to restore 15% of all global seagrass habitats by 2030.

In the UK, the WWF’s Seagrass Ocean Rescue initiative is currently working on restoring seagrass meadows in North Wales, the Firth of Forth, and the Solent.

How to identify seagrass

Since there are over 60 species of seagrasses living in our seas and oceans, chances are high that you’ve encountered at least a handful during a visit to the seaside in the UK or further afield. Remember, these plants typically grow in shallow waters close to shore, so you won’t need to go too far to find them.

With that in mind, how exactly do you identify seagrass? And what are the plant’s characteristics?

Seagrasses have leaves, roots and veins and will also produce flowers and seeds. Their roots can absorb nutrients and the veins transport both nutrients and water around the plant. Seagrasses can grow both vertically and horizontally, but they can come in many different shapes and sizes. In most cases, the names of the individual species reflect their appearance, like spoon grass and eelgrass.

Some seagrass will have an oval shape, ribbon-shaped leaves or even have a similar appearance to spaghetti. The roots are usually buried in sand or mud.

So, there you have it – our essential guide to seagrass and its importance in helping to protect precious marine and coastal habitats. The significance of seagrass isn’t lost on us here at Blue Planet Aquarium, which is why it features in many of our marine exhibits. To see it for yourself, along with the creatures it helps to protect, why not book your tickets to Blue Planet Aquarium today?

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