Two years in - the Community Seagrass Initiative
Published: Dec 30, 2016Two years into the South West’s first seagrass-based citizen science project, and what a busy two years it’s been!
The Community Seagrass Initiative was awarded £475,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2015 to provide opportunities for volunteers to get involved in marine science. The project will survey 191 miles of coastline from Looe to Weymouth, specifically looking at 19 subtidal seagrass beds.
Seagrass is one of the world’s only marine flowering plants; it creates large meadows in shallow waters on sandy seabeds. There are many seagrass meadows, or beds, around the South West of the UK and West coast of Scotland. The meadows act like an underwater rainforest, providing shelter and foraging areas for all sorts of marine species on an otherwise featureless seabed. Seagrass meadows are home to some of the most charismatic species in the UK such as seahorses and cuttlefish, and act as a nursery ground for commercial fish species. They can also improve water quality and stabilise sediments, reducing coastal erosion.
This amazing habitat is in decline because of development, pollution and recreational water use. For this reason, it is in need of protection. The first step to protection is to assess the state of the beds, then repeat the process.
Since the beginning of the project, my colleagues and I have been nonstop trying to raise awareness of seagrass in our local areas. It’s quite common that coastal communities are unaware that seagrass is growing in the shallows just off their local beach. We’ve had a great response and volunteers have been helping us collect information about the local seagrass habitats and taking part in many other activities.
Over all, we now have around 600 active volunteer divers, kayakers, boat users and Zooniverse users. Providing them with regular training sessions and the equipment they need to gather information has been a successful approach so far. It’s great to see their skills and a sense of ownership develop through the project.
Members of the public have been getting informed and involved too. We have conducted 23 Quayside Explorer days, spreading the word to passers-by at coastal events such as regattas and seafood festivals. We bring along a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV); a pilot flies it over the nearby underwater seagrass, filming it and beaming the live footage back to our wide screen TV in our marquee. Providing members of the public with information and leaflets about their local seagrass encourages them to get involved and help spread the word to family and friends.
Another interesting piece of technology we have used is a drone! The Weymouth project officer Jess Mead has been working with the Fleet Study Group to monitor the seagrass in the most protected body of water in Europe - the Fleet Lagoon, behind Chesil Beach. A drone pilot has helped Jess survey the Fleet Lagoon seagrass bed from the air by taking high resolution photos, after a realisation that a large area of seagrass has disappeared. By using this method regularly in the future, they can monitor the fragile habitat.
Exploring new techniques for surveying seagrass has been a great success. Our volunteer kayakers have been towing our underwater cameras to film the seabed along the coast to investigate for unknown seagrass. This method helped us find unmapped areas of seagrass near Paignton Harbour, Torbay. This information has been passed on to the Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authority (IFCA) in Brixham who monitor the extent of the seagrass in Torbay as part of the Marine Conservation Zone monitoring protocol.
More unknown seagrass has been found and mapped in Weymouth, too - Jess had help from Shoreline Surveys with a side scan sonar to discover a large dense meadow at the end of Weymouth Pier. This information was passed on to the Government’s environmental advisors Natural England.
We have joined forces with other organisations and seagrass researchers to increase our knowledge and resources to study the seagrass beds in the project area. We have helped a variety of PhD students collect samples and information for their projects, which include genetic variation between the seagrass beds, carbon storage and oxygen levels within the habitats. This allows us to back up our findings with extra information that is beyond the project’s remit.
Working with local organisations such as harbour authorities and councils we are able to reach our goals. One of them was to trial seagrass-friendly boat moorings. Regular boat moorings which are situated in seagrass beds have chains that scour the seabed and stop the growth of seagrass. Seagrass-friendly moorings can prevent this problem and reduce the impact on the surrounding habitat and wildlife. There are now two of these moorings in the project area and more planned for the future. See the video of one being deployed in Plymouth here: https://vimeo.com/195477394 .
Project partner the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust has facilitated the trial of growing Zostera marina seagrass from seeds. This is novel research which, although it has been tried before, is notoriously difficult. Living Coasts has kindly donated a tank, equipment and support to help with this experiment. The National Marine Aquarium also has tanks set up for different growing trials. Between the two locations, we hope to find a way to successfully grow seagrass from seeds. As a flowering plant, seagrass can produce flowers and seeds every summer to increase meadow size just like grass on land. If the seeds grow into adult plants, this method can be shared with other aquariums to allow them to grow it to use it in exhibits. This will also be an opportunity to attempt transplanting in the field to help struggling seagrass beds recover.
Some of the species that live in seagrass are classed as Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species. These are animals that are under threat or are indicators of environmental change so need to be recorded and reported to the National Biodiversity Network. So far we’ve recorded five stalked jellyfish http://www.marlin.ac.uk/species/detail/2101 (which are the size of your fingernail!) and one fan mussel http://www.marlin.ac.uk/species/detail/1157 (rare to see).
Reporting what we’ve seen and what we’re up to has been an important process to keep our volunteers, the public and readers up to date. We’ve had many articles published in magazines such as the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), Diver magazine, SCUBA magazine for the British Sub Aqua Club, Zoo News and Marine Conservation Magazine. Volunteers have contacted us after reading these articles and are now dedicated participants.
Videos are also a great way to show others what the CSI is all about; visit our Vimeo page to see some amazing videos made by volunteers and professionals: https://vimeo.com/user37310935 .
Attending conferences allows us to communicate with a more niche audience. We have attended and spoken at two BIAZA conferences, the National Aquarium Conference, the Dive Show and the International Seagrass Biology Workshop: http://isbw12.org/ . The ISBW in North Wales was one of the highlights of the whole project so far. Top seagrass scientists from around the world come together to share their work and attend workshops to put their heads together to discuss ways forward. To personally meet some of the researchers whose work I have been reading for years was a real honour. The five-day conference was jam-packed with fascinating talks, workshops, a field trip to a local seagrass bed and some great social events. It really opened our eyes to the fact that the UK is very behind on its seagrass research and regulations/legislations to protect it. This gave us inspiration to come back and really make the most of this final year of the project and encourage our project partners to do the same.
Finally, we have been saying thank you to our volunteers and partners by holding socials in our three main locations; Plymouth, Torbay and Weymouth. This is a chance for us to get together and review what we have done over the past year and of course let everyone know what we have found from all that data collection! We wouldn’t be able to keep this project going without them, so thank you to everyone involved.
Rachel Cole, Torbay Project Officer, The Community Seagrass Initiative.