In order to control the climate and mitigate climate change, carbon sinks are a vital part and process of the planet. This is due to their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and, after some time, slowly release it back into the atmosphere.
Now, a team of scientists from Edinburgh Napier University and East Africa, led by Professor Mark Huxham, has uncovered that underwater seagrass meadows, in southern Kenya’s Gazi Bay, absorb more carbon than other land-based carbon sinks, such as rainforests. Huxham and his team scientists discovered that ‘seagrass in Kenya locks in 50 per cent more carbon than is typical for seagrass meadows elsewhere.’ This indicates the important role that seagrass sites could play in the fight against climate change.
The seagrass meadows and mangroves found in Gazi Bay are ‘blue carbon sinks’ as they are living coastal and marine organisms. Seagrasses are easily mistaken for seaweed but are actually closer in relation to flowering plants found on land. They are known as being one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet due to the shelter they provide the animals that live within it and the services they provide to humans such as carbon storing.
The outcome of Huxham’s project, funded by Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation is that the seagrass meadows have the ability to absorb 35 times more atmospheric carbon than any land-based sinks such as tropical-rainforests. Furthermore, the meadows in Gazi Bay re-release the carbon at a much slower rate.
With great powers, though, comes great responsibility. Conserving the seagrass must become a priority locally and also globally. Huxham stresses this point: ‘conserving the seagrass bed is not only for nature’s sake. It is also about conserving that ecosystem to ensure sustainability of the fisheries and to improve people’s livelihoods in the long-term.’
Despite the fact that seagrasses are located in the Diani-Chale Marine Reserve and have a protected status, they are still under a degree of threat. The research indicates how human actions such as dragnet fishing, pollution, dredging and, specifically, the use of seine nets – fishing nets used to haul large quantities of marine life – have put the ecosystems under severe pressure. The buzzing tourism scene, which is encouraged due to the Marine Reserve, potentially exacerbates this degradation. This reveals some interesting yet relevant dichotomies in that the ‘eco-tourism’ industry is harming the environment the tourists are attracted to and the marginalised locals are having to protect this land from the richer visitors.
Huxham’s study highlights the importance of conserving the seagrasses and the other ecosystems in the Kwale District, in regards to the local population as well. Having a thriving ecosystem ensures that the marginalised and poverty-stricken locals have resources such as fish to buy and sell, thereby granting the community long-term food and economic security. With the new research released, Huxham has been talking to the local people about creating another Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) scheme, similar to the one that’s successfully maintaining and protecting mangroves nearby.
The existing PES scheme is called Mikoko Pamja meaning ‘Mangroves Together’ and was created as a joint initiative in 2013 between Gazi Bay villagers, volunteers, and institutions from the UK and Kenya. It relied on the villagers monitoring the growth and biodiversity in the mangroves and planting seeds four times a year. This kind of scheme appears wildly popular among the locals because they reap the benefits of better and bountiful fish stocks. For example, one villager, in an article for the Guardian, exclaims, ‘Since we started caring for the mangroves, we harvest more and more fish... Now, fishermen from as far off as Pemba [an island of the Zanzibar archipelago] come to fish here.’
The scheme also gives agency to the marginalised population because they choose how to spend the revenue, often investing in their children’s education. The prospect of having two projects within the Gazi Bay area that can help fend against climate change, as well as helping to develop the community, is therefore seen as an exciting one for bringing further benefits to the region.