A lot has changed since November 2019, when the ResilienSEA project awarded four seagrass research scholarships to master’s students. However, the recipients’ determination to complete their programs and protect seagrass ecosystems has not.
Melissa Ndure didn’t know much about seagrass before her trip to Senegal to take part in a workshop with the ResilienSEA project. In fact, the senior environment officer with Sierra Leone’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says she was more familiar with seaweed.
But all that changed in March 2018, during her Senegal visit. ‘I have been introduced to a whole new world’, says Ndure.
This underappreciated marine plant provides incredible benefits to both local communities and the global climate. In addition to stabilizing the coast, increasing biodiversity, and providing a safe haven for juvenile fish, which in turn boosts local fisheries, this small plant sequesters carbon.
But seagrass is often confused with seaweed. While seaweed anchors to things like stones or shells via a root-like structure called holdfast, seagrass has a complex root system that securely binds sediment and can store carbon for millennia. Seagrass, which can cover large areas of the seafloor, often looks much like regular grass found on land, but it is most closely related to lilies.
The lack of understanding and appreciation of seagrass led to the launch of the ResilienSEA project, funded by the MAVA Foundation. It aims to map seagrass beds in West Africa – a region seriously lacking in seagrass data – while developing management tools and empowering governments to protect this valuable natural resource.
Seagrass is frequently overshadowed by mangroves – trees or shrubs that are adapted to live in saltwater and provide similar ecosystem services to seagrass. But many seagrass scientists are determined to raise awareness and get seagrass beds around the globe protected and conserved. There are a lot of them: 160 countries have confirmed the presence of seagrass in their surrounding coastal regions, according to a forthcoming global seagrass report by the UN Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal.
But until December 2019, that number was 159, as seagrass was only then discovered in Sierra Leone, and it was all thanks to a happy accident.
In the weeks leading up to a ResilienSEA project workshop in Sierra Leone, Ndure and her colleagues began heading out to coastal islands on a mission to search for seagrass. But none of those trips were successful.
On the last day of the workshop, a smaller team including Ndure, GIS expert Samuel Kamara, and Maria Potouroglou, a seagrass scientist and project manager at GRID-Arendal, set out on a more than four-hour journey to search for seagrass around the Turtle Islands.
With the spring tide causing the water to be at a low point, their boat got stuck on a sandbank, and everyone got out to look around and push the boat to deeper waters. At first the area seemed barren, but soon Ndure exclaimed that she thought she’d found seagrass.
‘I was so, so excited’, says Ndure. ‘I had seen seagrass before in Senegal, but actually finding seagrass in Sierra Leone … I was blown away’, she continues.
In fact, this discovery has given Ndure so much momentum, she actually changed her Master’s thesis topic at Njala University in Freetown, and now plans to focus her research on seagrass.
‘I had already registered, and I had another topic, but then this whole event’, she says. ‘I just said to myself, there’s so much to be done, there’s so much need, and I think I should do some research in that area’.
This month, the Sierra Leone EPA will send another team to thoroughly map the seagrass bed that has been discovered near the Turtle Islands. But mapping it is only the beginning.
‘We want to go firstly to the communities or villages very close to the seagrass, because they need to know the value, they don’t know anything about this, for them it’s just grass. So we have to actually teach them that it’s there’, Ndure continues. ‘And then we move onto Freetown to educate other stakeholders, especially people that are working within the marine sector’.
Part of the marine environment surrounding the Turtle Islands is already a marine protected area, but once the maps are produced, the EPA will know how much of the seagrass beds already fall within the limits of the protected area, and whether the protected area needs to be expanded.
Photos: Rob Barnes (GRID-Arendal)