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Protecting the green that gives blue oceans life

A look at the vital role played by the 'forests beneath the sea', reflecting on the importance of the beautiful seagrass beds dotted around the Maldivian archipelago, on the occasion of World Seagrass Day (1st of March).

Shahudha Mohamed
02 March 2019, MVT 15:07
A seahorse is seen through a seagrass bed. PHOTO: VIVIENNE EVANS/MALDIVES UNDERWATER INITIATIVE
Shahudha Mohamed
02 March 2019, MVT 15:07

The mostly cerulean, turquoise and navy aerial view above the islands of Maldives is so breathtaking, that one may be forgiven for not noticing the handful of dark spots standing boldly in contrast against the crystal clear waters the country is renowned for.

For the discerning eye, what you are noticing are seagrass beds, usually found in the shallow lagoons of islands, that despite their modest appearance are vitally important to the seas surrounding them, housing an entire ecosystem within it.

A bed of seagrass seen from Laamu Atoll. PHOTO: MEGAN O'BEIRNE/MALDIVES UNDERWATER INITIATIVE

Seagrass is the unsung hero of our marine ecosystem, a biodiverse habitat for underwater animals, and a supporting foundation literally holding our islands in place.

Shunned by Paradise

However, the sad reality remains that, the Maldives' tourism industry almost unanimously treats seagrass as an eyesore that needs to be removed. This damaging perception first slid into our mindset in the 1970s, sinking its commercially-fuelled roots to developer attitudes succumbing to complaints made by foreigners who were unfamiliar with the naturality of these tropics. Today, this issue remains rampant among visitors and locals alike.

Priceless seagrass ecosystems around our resorts are wholly and intentionally being removed to maintain the pristine image of white sand beaches and turquoise waters that have become synonymous with the destination.

It has become so intertwined a subject, that many believe in order to sell a property or operate a profitable hospitality business anywhere in the Maldives, then the location must fit this narrow and largely dismissive visual description. Over the last couple of years, this type of thinking has led to the destruction of many unique and irreplaceable natural habitats, forests of seagrass included.

An aerial view of the seagrass bed in-between Jetty A and B of luxury resort Six Senses Laamu. PHOTO: ANDY BALL/MALDIVES UNDERWATER INITIATIVE

Thus, hoping to change how people view 'seagrass', in 2016 the Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) and Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) together with the luxury resort Six Senses Laamu, joined efforts to demonstrate how seagrass and tourism can coexist and generative positive outcomes hand in hand.

As their message gained momentum, the collaboration launched the #ProtectMaldivesSeagrass campaign by asking resorts, as well as the public, to pledge their support for the protection and preservation of seagrass beds in Maldives.

To better understand the depth of damage wrought on seagrass ecosystems and the effect this unique aspect of the ocean can have on those that live on land, it is necessary to first learn more about the plants themselves.

Why is Seagrass so important?

Seagrass, by definition, is a complex underwater flowering plant that can form dense underwater meadows. These beds of grass grow in lagoons around islands, providing habitat for megafaunas such as turtles, rays, sharks as well as innumerable numbers of fishes and invertebrates.

Although it grows on the sea floor, seagrass photosynthesises just like terrestrial plants and act as a carbon sink that converts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into oxygen. Moreover, seagrass helps to maintain healthy reefs and facilitates sustainable fisheries by providing a habitat for various marine animals.

Feathertail stingray is seen cruising over a seagrass bed. PHOTO: ANDY BALL/MALDIVES UNDERWATER INITIATIVE

In addition to this, the roots of seagrass dig deep into the sand holding the sea floor in place and protecting sandy beaches from erosion. Quite literally, these marine plants hold our islands in place.

Since seagrass is a completely different ecosystem from coral reefs, it is known to house certain marine creatures not typically seen in reef habitats. It is also a fun activity to search for signs of marine life within seagrass beds as many fishes and invertebrates hide under the canopy, and camouflage themselves by becoming all but invisible in their surroundings. Sea horses, a rare sighting in the Maldives, have been spotted hiding between the greenery of the grass beds surrounding Six Senses.

It is truly heartbreaking to note that such a beneficial ecosystem is being uprooted simply because certain beachgoers consider seagrass beds to be aesthetically unappealing.

Starting from the roots

Dr Paul York, an Australian Marine Biologist and Scientist articulated the condition of seagrass in Maldives during a session hosted in Maldives National University (MNU). He regretfully informed an auditorium full of interested guests that the only map available for sea grass habitats in Maldives was very incomplete. Despite being widely touted as a ‘nuisance’ in many islands, there is no proper documentation of its presence across the archipelago.

It is quite evident that the problem stems from an informed perception shared by the tourism industry and the general public alike. Despite depending on revenue generated by tourism, Maldivians are surprisingly unaware of the importance of seagrass and all the economic and environmental benefits of underwater habitats.

For instance, in a survey of 49 resorts, it was found that 50 percent of those who have seagrass actively remove it.

“…and those are the just the ones admitting to it”, begrudged head Marine Biologist at MUI, Natasha Prokop.

Six Senses Laamu led the initiative towards raising awareness by becoming the first resort to market seagrass in Maldives. Six Senses aimed to provide an educational and recreational activity that would ignite a passion for seagrass habitats in the hearts of their visitors. The resort drew inspiration from success stories such as that of Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, where the main attraction of the trip is dense seagrass beds that allow snorkelers to witness a marine ecosystem in motion. Unsurprisingly, the results were extremely positive.

A Hawksbill sea turtle is seen on a seagrass bed. PHOTO: ANDY BALL/MALDIVES UNDERWATER INITIATIVE

Guests expressed their enjoyment and expressed how differently snorkeling along sea grass beds compared to snorkeling above coral reefs. The tourists reported being impressed by the sheer amount of marine fauna observed in this self-sustaining ecosystem.

Natasha, who is also the lead marine biologist at Six Senses Laamu, explained the positive reviews, noting with excitement that many snorkelers had developed an emotional connection with the unique habitat.

She enunciated that the reason for such a well-received outcome was due to how the team had relayed information on what a beautiful and useful part of the ecosystem seagrass beds were, to their guests.

In addition to Six Senses Laamu, 11 other resorts joined the pledge to Protect Maldives Seagrass, a movement which aims to protect and preserve 80 percent or more of the sea grass growing around resorts in Maldives. These 12 resorts are a perfect example that tourism and seagrass can coexist. The 10 partner organisations and the resorts, are now advocating for the rest of the country to follow their footsteps and allow our seagrass beds to thrive.

Reaching for the canopy

Natasha expressed hopes that the government would join their movement and pledge to #ProtectMaldivesSeagrass by discouraging the removal of seagrass beds around resorts. Members of this initiative welcome relevant authorities to reach atleast a compromise between protecting valuable ecosystems and achieving the state of 'desired beauty’.

Discussing how coral reefs and mangroves are protected under environmental law, Natasha highlighted that seagrass beds are closely intertwined with adjacent reefs and mangroves. The marine biologist stated that uprooting seagrass can have negative repercussions on neighbouring ecosystems as well.

Head Marine Biologist Natasha Prokok at luxury resort Six Senses Laamu during the Session 1 of 'Maldives Resilient Reefs' Seminar at Maldives National University. PHOTO: AHMED NISHAATH/THE EDITION

As the team elaborated on the social media aspect of the initiative, they revealed that their aim was to gain enough support to push this matter forward with higher levels of authority. The campaign will bring together resorts, international organizations, film makers and scientists in one partnership to advocate for the legal protection of sea grass.

Dr Paul York spoke optimistically about how the campaign could set an example for the global tourism industry. “With the total area of seagrass worldwide declining at a rate of 7 percent per year, there has never been a more important time to start protecting seagrass", said Dr. York.

"If the Maldivian tourism industry sets the standard for other locations around the world, then we’re likely to see the other countries follow suit, reap the benefits seagrass has to offer and protect a key habitat on a global scale.”

Green is beautiful

The #ProtectMaldivesSeagrass campaign could be the tidal change for the valuation of seagrass, both on an economic and environmental scale.

An aerial view of a seagrass bed from Hithadhoo, Laamu Atoll. PHOTO: MALDIVES UNDERWATER INITIATIVE

It is due time to incorporate the black sheep of the marine ecosystem into our tourism sector, because it is universally understood that the more we alter our natural resources, the less we benefit from them.

Interested readers can show their support for the initiative at www.protectmaldivesseagrass.com or posting on social media with the hashtag #ProtectMaldivesSeagrass.

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