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Biodiversity and Food Security: Developing a Collaborative Policy for Seagrass Conservation in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI)

An interdisciplinary team assembled from Cardiff and Swansea Universities is helping protect seagrass meadows in the West Indies. Seagrasses are flowering plants that form meadows in coastal and shallow marine environments.  Found across the globe, they are key components of coastal and marine systems.

In the Caribbean region, seagrasses maintain water quality. This allows for some of the most ecologically and culturally valued marine habitats in the world and provides the basis for numerous livelihood activities.  As such, seagrass habitats exemplify social and ecological systems working together, producing and sustaining the environment around us.

Despite their importance, global seagrass meadows are currently being lost at a rate of up to two football fields per hour. This loss is the result of increased nutrient run-off, sedimentation, damage from boats, and pesticide leaching. These sensitive habitats are also threatened by over-fishing and by destructive and illegal fishing methods. Seagrass meadows are now in urgent need of support.

The Cardiff and Swansea University team aims to promote sustainable seagrass management. With funds from the DARWIN Initiative – provided by the UK Government’s Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) – they are highlighting the importance of the fisheries supported by seagrass habitats and their role in providing food and livelihoods to local people. This one year pilot project involves the team working closely with the TCI Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, Red Cross TCI, and the School for Field Studies.

Dependence on Local Fisheries

Local fisherman/restaurateur preparing his conch catch

Local fisherman/restaurateur preparing his conch catch. Seagrass provides food and shelter for the endangered Green Turtle species, as well as other charismatic marine animals such as manatees and seahorses. It also plays a key role in supporting people – through marine based livelihoods, coastal protection, water filtration and the trapping of carbon dioxide. The lush vegetation of seagrass meadows provides ideal food and shelter for juvenile coral reef fish, and therefore promotes the sustainable productivity of a range of fisheries – on which often vulnerable populations rely for the core of their livelihoods.

The research being undertaken illustrates the high dependence of local fisheries upon seagrass meadows, both directly as fishing grounds and indirectly as nursery habitats. Surveys in seagrass meadows reveal a great diversity of fish using these resources (56 species in preliminary surveys). A significant proportion of these were juvenile fish that underpin the natural resupply of wider stocks, and therefore sustain the local economy. In particular, seagrasses support the Conch and Lobster fisheries that are essential for both export and domestic consumption.

Unfortunately, research also identifies that this important resource is under threat, particularly from the growing use of chemical bleach to catch fish, poor water quality and the physical impacts of dredging, boat anchoring and coastal development. A range of anecdotal evidence suggests that tropical storms and hurricanes in the last 10 years resulted in large-scale loss of seagrass on the Caicos bank that has never fully recovered.

Overall, the team concludes that there is immediate need to develop a Seagrass Conservation Action Plan to protect food security in TCI.

Governance of a Coupled Social-Ecological System: Challenges and Opportunities

While marine protection policy in TCI is strong and local officials are firmly committed to marine protection, the capacity for monitoring and enforcement is limited. The global financial crisis coupled with public mismanagement has significantly degraded administrative capacity. While public sector reforms introduced under the period of Direct Rule (2009-2012) have brought greater transparency and accountability, rationalization of public administration has resulted in loss of resources. Some governance support is provided by key stakeholders; in particular the dive operators, who act as lobbyists and conservation watchdogs, and make their boats available for monitoring and enforcement. However, public support is in general weakened by a lack of education on the value of seagrasses – often overshadowed by attention to coral conservation.

The team’s research included elite qualitative interviews with senior civil servants and key stakeholder organisations, such as the Red Cross, gaining insights into the complexity of governing TCI’s marine environment. They found a tension between the protection of the rich marine biodiversity of TCI, and increasing support for tourism and development – widely hailed as the route to future prosperity.  Having identified threats to seagrasses and the specific local barriers to their conservation, the team aims to develop a collaborative policy for their conservation.

Over the longer term the project aims to raise public awareness of the importance of seagrass meadows. Working with local stakeholders and community groups, the team intends to devise ways to protect the marine heritage for the cultural benefit, food security and economic livelihoods of current and future generations.

Project team: Professor Susan Baker, Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, Dr Jessica Paddock (C3W and PLACE, Cardiff University), Dr Alastair Smith (School of Planning and Geography, Cardiff University) and Dr Richard Unsworth (SEACAMS, Swansea University).

Cullen-Unsworth, L., Nordlund, L., Paddock, J., Baker, S., McKenzie, L and Unsworth, R. (2013) Seagrass Meadows Globally as a Coupled Social–Ecological System: Implications for Human Wellbeing, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Available online 22 June 2013.