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Finding treasure in the Turtle Islands

An expedition documents seagrasses in Sierra Leone for the first time.

Are there seagrasses in Sierra Leone? Up until last week, that was an unanswered question. While the 2003 World Atlas of Seagrasses indicates that Halodule wrightii is present in Sierra Leone, no specific details or locations were known.

The ResilienSEA project, funded by the MAVA Foundation, is working to expand knowledge about seagrasses in seven countries in West Africa, including Sierra Leone, and to protect these vital ecosystems. As part of the project, each country will map and monitor seagrasses at a national pilot site.

In Sierra Leone, previous missions to find seagrasses had been unsuccessful, so earlier this month, a team embarked on a new exploratory mission. The team, with representatives from the Sierra Leone Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and GRID-Arendal, travelled to the Turtle Islands, west of Sherbro Island in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. This small group of eight islands stretches across an area of shallow waters and white sand banks. The area is relatively remote and difficult to reach, but a high-level GIS analysis and local knowledge from fisherfolk indicated that it could be an ideal location for seagrasses.

After an overnight stay on Banana Island to the north, the team slowly made its way to the Turtle Islands. Within minutes of arriving close to Moot Island, one of the largest of the Turtle Islands, Melissa Ndure of the EPA called out excitedly that she thought she had found seagrass in the shallow waters. Lead seagrass scientist Maria Potouroglou of GRID-Arendal quickly confirmed the discovery.

The presence of a large and healthy meadow of Halodule wrightii had finally been confirmed in Sierra Leone.

Along with a healthy seagrass population, the team found the seagrass meadow to be rich in different types of organisms, including sting rays, sea stars and many species of juvenile fish, all using this habitat for food or protection.

Ramatu Massaquoi, deputy director of EPA, shared her excitement: “It is a great joy to learn from my team that healthy seagrass was discovered with much biodiversity and associated attributes.”

Project Coordinator Tanya Bryan of GRID-Arendal was also thrilled with news of the discovery: “We are so excited for the team on their find and for Sierra Leone to finally have a confirmed presence of seagrass. We are looking forward to working with EPA and the rest of the partners on the national team on how we can support future efforts on mapping and monitoring this, and potentially other yet-to-be-discovered seagrass beds!”

In early 2020, the EPA will lead further work at this pilot site, including mapping the full extent of the seagrass meadows and conducting stakeholder engagement meetings on the best ways to monitor and preserve them.

Tanya Bryan

Photos: Rob Barnes (GRID-Arendal)

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